When I learned about the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 in grade school, a little playground rhyme from the era etched itself in my mind. It goes like this: “I had a little bird, it’s name was Enza, I opened the window and in flew Enza.” Of course, this seemingly lighthearted rhyme is a rather punny (sorry…) metaphor for the spread of influenza (“in flew Enza”). As we’re in the midst of a particularly nasty and newsworthy flu season, it seems like a good time to flash back to that flu epidemic that nearly 100 years later remains in our consciousness. Like the rest of the world, Iowa State University was not immune to the disease, and life on campus was impacted greatly.
Spanish influenza began its spread in late August, 1918. Shipments of troops moving out across the world during World War I aided the transmission of the disease. By October of that year, the epidemic swept into Iowa, and the state first reported cases of influenza on October 5th. Although the first reports were submitted at that time, it seems that the disease was here a bit earlier – Camp Dodge was quarantined on September 28th. The epidemic was at its peak in Iowa the week of October 19th with a total of 21,117 cases, but the disease didn’t significantly disappear until the summer of 1919. By the time the outbreak ended in 1919, approximately 20 million people died the world over. This website on “The Great Pandemic,” as it is sometimes called, provides lots of information on the spread of the Spanish flu, including its effects in each state.
While all of this was going on, our Student Army Training Corps, or SATC, was training military men on campus for WWI. October 1918 brought disruption to the training program with many SATC men falling ill with Spanish influenza. In the Iowa State College Hospital’s record book, there are pages upon pages of influenza cases, primarily from October through December 1918. Eventually the College Hospital was overflowing with patients, and other buildings, including State Gym, were turned into additional hospital facilities. An excerpt from a letter from President Stanton to the Committee on Education and Special Training, Washington, DC, describes the situation on October 9th, 1918:
“We have some 300 cases of the Influenza, but have ample hospital facilities, physicians and attendants. The number of new cases are decreasing, those discharged from the hospital exceed those admitted, and we feel that we are facing toward normal conditions. We have a strict quarantine separating us from the rest of the world.” (RS 13/16/1, Box 2, Folder 14)
The quarantine of which he wrote involved guards posted around campus 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anyone who wished to enter or leave campus required permission and were given passes to present to the guards, like the one below.
Despite President Stanton’s optimism in the letter, the epidemic was far from over at Iowa State. In a memo to the heads of departments dated October 12, 1918, he enacted the following:
“At meeting of the Board of Deans on October 8, 1918 it was decided that, for the time being, complete segregation of men from women students be established, including segregation at class periods.” (RS 13/16/1, Box 2, Folder 9)
The logic behind this was likely that all SATC members were men; therefore separating the men from the women would reduce the spread of the disease. It was a method that seems to have worked. Out of the 53 people that died at Iowa State, only two were women. The other 51 were all SATC men. The men’s names are included on the WWI list in Gold Star Hall in the Memorial Union.
For more information on the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 at Iowa State, see the Department of Military Science Subject Files, the James Thomas Emmerson Papers, and the Charles F. Tous Papers. And of course, do what you can to prevent the flu and its spread this season – tips can be found here. Stay healthy!