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.