COVID-19 in perspective: Wellesley & the 1918-19 influenza pandemic

The new coronavirus isn’t influenza. And I’m not an historian. But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been inspired to dig up a series of reports from early in the 20th century to get a sense of how the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic affected Wellesley.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history.” About 675,000 people died during the pandemic from flu (based on the H1N1 virus) in the United States, including the young and old. Some 80,000 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the U.S. so far.

Research out of Wellesley College released in March sought to find lessons from the pandemic a century ago, which hit in 3 waves, the most severe during the fall of 1918 outside of typical flu season. They found that isolation and social distancing strategies were used to contain the virus and proved effective the earlier and longer they were implemented.

Wellesley College and the influenza pandemic

Wellesley College, which was founded in 1870, itself felt the effects of the 1918 flu (Babson College, founded in 1919, dodged it.)

Like other schools at the time, Wellesley College created makeshift infirmaries on campus to isolate and treat sick students. It also banned students from getting too close to sailors returning from World War I. A Boston Globe headline from Jan. 21, 1919 read: “WELLESLEY GIRLS BARRED FROM COMING TO BOSTON,” though a Jan. 31 headline read “Wellesley College to Break Quarantine to See Show” at the Copley Theatre.

Annual reports issued by Wellesley College’s administration cited the serious impact of the influenza pandemic on its community. The 1918-1919 report documents the situation: “The year had hardly opened when the prevailing influenza became epidemic and made many demands upon the administration of the College. Immediate adjustments were necessary to provide for the care of students who could not be accommodated at Simpson Hospital. Joslin, The Elms and Lovewell were emptied of their regular students in quick succession, and converted into temporary hospitals, while Horton House, which came into the possession of the College on October first, was filled with convalescent students within twenty-four hours.”‘

Some 255 cases were reported, and sadly, a freshman from Cincinnati “was unable to withstand the attack of influenza” and passed away.

The report detailed “a rigid quarantine, forbidding students to go even to the village, to use trolleys or trains, or to attend any public gathering was in force for many weeks.” Restrictions remained in place until February, at which time no cases of influenza were reported in the infirmary.

The college said it was due to one leader’s” vigilance that the College came through the influenza epidemics of 1918 and 1919 with miraculously few casualties.”

(The college also heralds the work of grad Mabel Seagrave, a surgeon who tended to those with influenza and other serious ailments in Europe as part of a Women’s Oversea Hospitals contingent during WWI.)

Time tracker: OK, I lost track of how much time it took to me put this post together. Let’s just say it was hours. Not easy scrolling through old newspaper articles online…If you appreciate this sort of journalistic effort, please consider contributing to Swellesley.

Wellesley Fire Department hit hard, but Newton had its back

Wellesley firefighters are currently coping with the dangers of COVID-19. And as current Wellesley Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Peterson notes, the department’s predecessors from the early 1900s faced the threat of the influenza pandemic.

He shared with us a copy of the 1918 Wellesley Town Report in which Fire Chief John Doyle thanks the Newton Fire Department for sending over an acting chief and many men to cover Wellesley.

“In October of last year the department was placed in a peculiar predicament, owing to the fact that all the permanent men but one were confined to their respective homes or hospital, suffering from influenza and pneumonia at the same time,” he wrote.

Newton Chief Walter Randlett sent men to cover for Wellesley despite the fact that many of Newton’s force was sick, too.

The real story of influenza

Whereas government officials these days lawyer up and huddle up before revealing COVID-19 details (we can’t possibly release numbers by town or city or longterm healthcare facility… OK, we will…we can’t possibly release data on deaths due to privacy concerns…), back in 1918 and 1919, names and details were flying around pretty wildly. No HIPAA to worry about back then.

Wellesley’s Health Department reported 444 cases of influenza in 1918 once cases started being tracked in early October. The town was able to backtrack and come up with data from earlier in the year, however, bringing the total closer to 800 (Wellesley has about 200 COVID-19 cases so far). Deaths from influenza were not listed in the town report.

In its 1918 town report, Wellesley documented how with 250 people ill with influenza in September, the town’s Board of Health “took over the Maugus Club as an emergency hospital, and operated it as such for three weeks, during which time there were 21 admissions; 4 of these died, the rest were discharged as cured.”

Wellesley town report 1918
From 1918 Wellesley Town Report, regarding conversion of the Maugus Club into an emergency hospital


Nearby, Newton Hospital (now Newton-Wellesley Hospital) erected “tents and temporary buildings to deal with the influenza epidemic and the influx of wounded from World War I.”

Schools in Wellesley were closed for a stretch due to the pandemic, and as the town detailed in its annual report for 1918, “When the school sessions were resumed this year, announcement was made that the policy would be to make up the work lost rather than to prolong the school year. Students and teachers are working zealously to realize this aim, and it is confidently expected that this will be attained.” No mention of remote learning.

The number of influenza cases in 1919 fell to 146 dropped and illnesses fell precipitously from the start of the year, with 108 cases in January and just 2 cases after April.

The Boston Globe regularly ran ominous-sounding “Influenza toll…” headlines beneath which ran stats of the ill and dead.

The Wellesley Townsman back then featured many a report of residents suffering from the flu, by name.

On Jan. 31, 1919 we learned that Mrs. J. Allon Tailby and Mr. William Hawes were ill with influenza, and that Mrs. Owen McLaughlin of Portland, Maine, formerly of Wellesley, had died from influenza. In March of 1919, a first-grade teacher at Fiske School resigned her position due to an ongoing case of influenza. A John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance advertisement boasted of paying out $4M “for claims caused by epidemic influenza.”

And in on a more familiar note, the Townsman reported on many an event affected by influenza. A September 1918 article simply titled “Postponements” included word that “On account of the Influenza and in accordance with the advice and directions of the Board of Health the Schools will be closed until next Monday. Services at the following Churches will be omitted next Sunday…The Community Sing advertised for next Monday Evening has been postponed…”  A September 1918 report on a Public Food Meeting noted that “An excellent audience was present considering the influenza situation.”

The Townsman reported on 329 cases of influenza reported among the school community from September of 1918 and June 1919, with the number of cases of measles, mumps, diphtheria and other infectious diseases paling by comparison.

In October of 1918, Dr. Edward Bancroft, Chairman of the Board of Health, cautioned that those with “colds, coughs or aching head, back or muscles, should remain at home; parents should keep their children at home from school unless free from all these symptoms.” And while the 6-foot rule is in vogue for COVID-19, back then the thinking was that a cough could damage from up to 10 feet away and that “ordinary conversation by an infected person endangers others within a distance of four feet, even when not coughing. This should be remembered in the home as well as elsewhere.”

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