War, Influenza, and the University

Like many people, I’ve been watching the spread of coronavirus with a combination of fascination and shock. Watching a virus traverse the world via our dense network of travel, community, and institutions is a remarkable reminder of the vital global flows that make our situation possible. It seems to speak to something fundamental to the late 20th and early 21st century.  

At the same time, the spread of the virus draws me back to an article in the NDQ archive that describes the onset of the influenza epidemic on the campus of the University of North Dakota in 1918. In the waning months of World War I, influenza ripped through the Student Army Training Corp stationed at UND. By the time it ended, 29 student cadets had died.   

Below is an excerpt from O.G. Libby’s article on the work of North Dakota’s colleges and universities during the Great War published by NDQ in 1919.

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O.G. Libby, “The Work of the Institutions of Higher Education” NDQ 10, Number 1 (January 1919), 61-80.

The work of the S.A.T.C [Student Army Training Corp] unit had hardly begun when the student body was overtaken by an epidemic of influenza which caused suspension of all classes by quarantine October 8, and finally of all but the most necessary of camp duties. Following the establishment of the quarantine in Grand Forks as well as at the University the street cars were stopt at Hamline avenue and guards were stationed at every University entrance for the control of traffic and the exclusion of the public from the University campus. On the thirteenth of October, Sunday, a large number of the students reported as sick of the influenza at the base hospital establisht in the Phi Delta Theta house and at the emergency hospital on the third floor of Budge Hall. The number of patients increast so fast that by the following Tuesday the military headquarters were removed to Davis Hall and all the students rooming in this dormitory were transferred elsewhere as rapidly as possible. By the end of the week pneumonia began to develop among the patients and the University found itself in the grip of the worst epidemic in its history. Lieutenant Jesse H. McIntosh was camp physician during the existence of the S.A.T.C. unit. During the epidemic he was assisted by Dr. James Grassick, University physician, who had his headquarters at Budge hall. The women patients at the University were cared for, principally, at a temporary hospital in a nearby cottage. Dr. H. E. French, Dean of the University School of Medicine, had charge of all these cases and was able to deal so successfully with the epidemic that he lost none of his patients.

Lack of adequate hospital facilities on the University campus led to undesirable overcrowding, and since no provision for this contingency had been made in advance the most fatal consequences followed. The largest number of patients was cared for in Budge Hall, and that the mortality there did not run higher is due solely to the professional skill and untiring devotion of the head nurse, Miss Mae McCullough. Immediately on being placed in charge of the nurses at this hospital, near the close of the first week of the epidemic, she introduced every device that her long experience had shown her to be useful in such emergencies. The hospital record of every patient was kept at his bedside accessible to the nurses and doctors. Every patient had abundance of fresh air, but screens were placed over the windows so as to avoid dangerous draughts. The cots were raised on specially made blocks so as to render the care of the patients easier for the attendants. A diet kitchen was installed where proper food could be prepared under the most favorable circumstances. Relays of Grand Forks women, chosen from those most able to assist her, workt day and night under her directions to save the worst cases and to prevent further development of the most dangerous phase of the epidemic. The citizens of Grand Forks responded to every call for help. The day and night shifts at Budge Hall were conveyed to and from their homes in autos even during the worst weather. Meals were brought out every night to those who went on duty in the evening. When the head nurse called for volunteer doctors from the city to serve at the hospital during the night, at which time the regular physicians were not on duty, there was no lack of response. The services of the Red Cross were placed at the service of the University by its representative, Mr. C.C. Gowran, while the chairman of the University War Committee, acting as his volunteer assistant, helpt to discover the needs of every one and to fill them promptly. With all the care that could have been lavisht upon them, the patients would have fared badly but for the medical supplies and other material daily brought from the Red Cross headquarters at Grand Forks. Within the S.A.T.C. unit itself the medical students gave freely of their utmost as nurses’ aides while the details of military orderlies did their work loyally under the most trying circumstances. The remarkable severity of the epidemic in every part of the country makes the record of its ravages of special interest. How a number of other institutions met and combatted the scourge is given in brief at the close of this sketch. Appended to these summaries is a table of the statistics for each institution that furnisht the facts.

Near the close of the epidemic the War Committee sent the follow communication to the President:

In view of the severity of the recent epidemic and the constant danger of a renewal of its ravages, in view of the trust reposed in us by the parents of the students in attendance at the University and for the purpose of more fully utilizing the service of the medicalmen of Grand Forks City and County, it is recommended by the University War Committee:

1. That a joint medical committee be formed by voluntary association for the purpose of taking into consideration the special problems arising from the spread of the epidemic at the University S.A.T.C camp, this committee to consist of the medical army officer of the camp, the Dean of the University School of Medicine, the Grand Forks County Health Officer, the City Health Officer, and the chairman of the Commercial Club Health committee.

2. While, from the military situation, it is recognized that the function of this committee must be purely advisory, it is strongly urged that the committee, acting for the whole state constituency of the University, consider every phase of the public health situation connected with the S.A.T.C. camp life, and to that end it is suggested that the committee be subject to call by any one of its members.

As events turned out, there was no renewal of the epidemic but it was felt that there was now a well-digested plan on file so that any future emergency might not again find us wholly unprepared. S.A.T.C. class work was gradually resumed during the first week in November. The general quarantine on the city and University
was not removed, however, and the outside student body did not return for work. As only six weeks remained of the first quarter, the class work was altered so as to cover, as far as possible, the courses for the entire quarter. The signing of the armistice on November 11 and the subsequent order for demobilization put an end to the S.A.T.C. organization and opened the way for a resumption of regular University work.

One Reply to “War, Influenza, and the University”

  1. spearman3004 says:

    This brings back memories considering as a kid I delivered papers to Budge & Davis Hall for about 3 years, 59-62. I didn’t know this history of these buildings that I was in every day.

    Liked by 2 people

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