Mass Aggie and the 1918-1920 Influenza Epidemic
The influenza epidemic popularly known as the “Spanish flu” emerged on the campus of Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC) in the fall of 1918. At that time, the college had slightly fewer than 500 registered students. By the middle of October, with microbiology professor and infirmary supervisor Dr. Charles E. Marshall in charge of MAC’s response, restrictions on leaving campus were in place, travelers returning to campus could be quarantined for four days, and there were few known cases. The college deemed itself better prepared by far than it had been in January 1913, when an outbreak of scarlet fever sickened 25 students, four of whom died. In 1915, with $15,000 from the state legislature—not quite enough for one large infirmary building—it had constructed two small buildings, one of which was meant to be for contagious cases, and both of which were considered temporary.
An early influenza patient was Elizabeth Olmstead, resident nurse at the infirmary from sometime in 1918 to August 1920. Along with a Miss Starkweather, she cared for 37 patients, all of whom had recovered by late October. According to an October 30, 1918, story in the Collegian, Olmstead “resumed her duties before she herself was fully recovered, thereby proving her loyalty to Aggie.”
However, preparations notwithstanding, the campus saw several influenza-related deaths. Stuart C. Vinal, class of 1915, a graduate assistant in entomology who worked at the Experiment Station, died on September 26. On October 2, farm manager John J. Barber died, and herdsman Maurice Calif died on November 19. Off campus, a current student, Trueman Eugene Kile, a member of the class of 1921, died at his home in Providence, R.I., on December 6.
Kile was a private in the Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC), established by the United States War Department earlier that year at colleges across the country. An effort to maintain enrollment while preparing more young men to serve in the war, the SATC was active at MAC from October through December, as cases of influenza continued to rise everywhere. The flu, in fact, affected the program: all large gatherings were cancelled, and the soldiers’ classes were suspended for four weeks. In contrast to the Collegian story, the 1919 Annual Report put the number of sick MAC students and soldiers at 25 and added, “the second wave of influenza, which was predicted by physicians, has come, and a number of cases have occurred.” Still, the report noted, “the State Department of Health congratulated the college ‘for the admirable way in which the situation was handled, and your remarkable showing for health.’” And the 1919 Summer School, part of MAC’s Short Courses offerings of more flexible and specialized educational opportunities, had the largest enrollment for that program that the college had ever seen, and grew again the following summer. The return from war of many men, expanding opportunities for women, and a general desire to resume normalcy likely all fueled this growth.
Travel restrictions remained in place at least into 1920. The Collegian mentioned on February 3 the cancellation of a Chemistry Club trip meant to take place in January: the Amherst Board of Health requested that “students should not leave town unless on urgent business because of the influenza epidemic.” How long such restrictions continued is unclear from the records; campus attention was focused on postwar endeavors including educating veterans, supporting students returning with war-related disabilities, and increasing programming for women, as well as constructing buildings and facilities to accommodate growing numbers of students. A pledge drive to raise funds among alumni for the Alumni Memorial Building, now Memorial Hall, was considered a great success and a fitting homage to fallen Aggies.
The college also desperately needed a new, permanent infirmary. With a rapidly growing student body that included more women than ever, MAC’s small buildings, just five years old, would not be sufficient “to meet the minimum requirements of the hospital in case of an epidemic.” (Annual Report, 1921) Dr. Marshall repeatedly called for such a building: “When some drastic epidemic, as the influenza, comes, I dread to think of what may happen.” (Annual Report, 1923)
There were, of course, more outbreaks of influenza and scarlet fever, although apparently not “drastic” ones. It was not until 1947 that major expansion of the infirmary facilities came in the form of a two-story annex. Dr. Marshall, who also served as microbiology department chair and head of the graduate school, was not there to see it; he died suddenly in March 1927 from heart disease, just 60 years old. Tributes to him and his accomplishments in the Collegian and the Index do not mention his supervision of the infirmary or his role in managing the flu outbreak.
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Historic events do not happen in a vacuum, nor does historical research. This story was prepared while the Libraries were closed due to the global pandemic and access to physical collections was not possible; it relies on records and material from the University Archives that have been digitized. Since the bulk of the sources used were Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC) publications, it seems the college did not document the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic to a great extent, possibly because its impact locally was considered relatively minor, especially compared to the war and its disruptions.
The clues are tantalizing but leave plenty of questions: How many MAC students actually fell sick? (Between 25 and 37 out of 489 equals between about 5.1% and 7.6%of the student population at the time.) How did students feel about what was happening? When were restrictions lifted? Did people wear masks? What was the first name of Miss Starkweather, a nurse who does not appear in the Annual Report staff lists? It is not unusual to find gaps and inconsistencies in the archival record, which exist for any number of reasons, and so, even when we can return to the archives, these are questions to which we may not find ready or complete answers.
By Caroline J. White, Archives & Manuscript Librarian, Special Collections and University Archives