1918 vs. 2020: Parallels of a pandemic
Records show how Alma College dealt with quarantine, mask-wearing and Spanish flu spread more than 100 years ago
By Kristin Olbertson
Associate Professor of History, Pre-Law Program Coordinator
In October 1918, Alma College welcomed its largest enrollment to date. Nearly 200 students crammed onto campus, 100 of them members of the Student Army Training Corps — the U.S. had entered World War I the previous April. Enlisted men were eligible for free tuition, room and board, but they lived in cramped accommodations and had to juggle full class schedules along with military drills.
The year of 1918’s record enrollment coincided with what was then the nation’s worst epidemic, the now-infamous “Spanish influenza.” Moreover, many college students fell into the demographic most likely to die from the 1918 flu, 20- to 40-year-olds. Yet amazingly, Alma College recorded no on-campus student or faculty deaths from the flu.
I first learned this story two years ago when a group of first-year seminar students and I ventured into the college archives to carefully examine the original copies of The Almanian from fall 1918. With the help of archivist Viki Everhart, who had also digitized every issue, we traced the story of the flu at Alma. Adding in information from the local paper The Alma Record, they began to put together a narrative which we then tweeted out as if in “real time” at the account @MichFlu_1918.
The day after the fall semester opened on Oct. 2, the departure of local men for Army and Navy training camps “where influenza is raging” was suspended. Nonetheless, crowds numbering in the thousands gathered on Oct. 4 and 6 for troop demonstrations and a Liberty Loan concert in downtown Alma.
By Oct. 10, Alma biology professor Dr. Hansford MacCurdy felt compelled to publish some scientific information about the flu, writing “It is very important that all available knowledge of this disease be given the public in order to prevent as far as possible [its] spread,” and concluding, “During epidemics avoid as far as possible crowded rooms, street cars, etc.”
Despite reporting the flu death of a former Alma student at his home, the first fall issue of The Almanian struck an optimistic note in its editorial: “Let us have the hearty cooperation and support of each and every student and there is no good reason why we cannot put the year 1918-19 down as a banner one in the annals of the college.” Two days later, Alma College was under quarantine.
Alma students did their best to maintain a semblance of normalcy under quarantine. All classes but German continued — apparently, there was little interest in learning the language of the enemy.
Everyone at the college wore masks. All SATC men received “inoculations,” likely made available by the Army. The physician heading the local health department used an “apparatus” to administer a throat spray to every student. (My students and I were unable to dig up any further details about the spray’s ingredients or purpose.)
By the end of October, Alma was the only college in the state with zero influenza cases within its SATC, and there were still no cases on campus when quarantine was lifted on Nov. 19. To keep out infection, any student returning to campus from a visit home would now be quarantined to a room in Wright Hall for three days.
The Almanian celebrated the end of isolation, and wryly concluded, “The quarantine has given us a splendid chance to get acquainted.”
However, students had participated in two massive armistice celebrations in downtown Alma the previous week. As cases surged in Alma, so too at the college: the Dec. 3 SATC dance was postponed because too many men were sick; the following week three faculty members missed classes due to flu; and masks were reinstated as “a general order.” New cases continued to emerge for weeks, with many students hospitalized. Fortunately, none died.
In 2018, we could only imagine how it felt to be cooped up for weeks on end to prevent spread of a deadly virus; today, we know this feeling all too well. Alma College managed to avoid any cases in 1918 until students broke quarantine in spectacular fashion.
However, students back then were keenly aware of the seriousness of the flu. In the 1918-19 school year, at least four current or recent classmates succumbed to the disease, either at home or in military service. One student, Corporal Dwight VonThurn, died in a Georgia training camp after volunteering to serve as a nurse to his fellow soldiers. The Almanian recorded his private funeral and burial in Riverside Cemetery, noting he “was indeed a hero.”
Our final class activity was to locate his gravestone and pay our respects to this young man who “met his end in doing his best service for his country.”