Section: Features

A deep dive into Kenyon’s first pandemic: the Spanish Flu

COURTESY OF THE KENYON REVEILLE

As the first major pandemic in most people’s lifetimes, it’s sometimes easy to forget that COVID-19 is not the first pandemic that the modern world — or even Kenyon College — has experienced. 

Archives from the Collegian dating back to the early 20th century provide intriguing glimpses into student life during the harrowing years of 1918-1920, when the Great Influenza epidemic heavily influenced the lives of Kenyon students. As World War I persisted late into the decade, Collegian editions capture the College’s response to the two global crises that overlapped during this time.

While influenza, or the so-called Spanish Flu, began to spread rapidly in 1918, several Kenyon students enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. According to College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73, it is likely that a majority of Kenyon’s student population participated in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), a government program that trained college students for the war effort. Members of Kenyon’s SATC unit were particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic as they trained in close proximity with one another, making them susceptible to the highly contagious virus. In January 1919, the Collegian reported that “every day for almost a week, men would be seized with the disease and faint while standing in ranks.” 

In  a community effort to tackle the effects of the pandemic, Kenyon converted the west wing of Old Kenyon Residence Hall into a hospital to isolate those who were ill. Protocols required infected students to isolate themselves in their respective rooms for at least a day until a physician instructed them to quarantine in the hospital. In Jan. 1919, the Collegian reported that “one man remained in his room for a day and a half with nothing to eat and with no attention whatsoever.” The understaffed hospital, which hired just one physician to care for over 40 patients at one point, saw many flu cases develop into pneumonia. Two Kenyon students, Neal Jones and Verner Lee Hulse, died from the virus. 

To grapple with the challenging times their tight-knit community faced, students used the phrase “Kenyon fighting spirit” as a reminder of their perseverance. Despite the trying times, a dance called the Sophomore Hop, one of Kenyon’s biggest traditions at the time, still took place during these years. Sports games, weekend trips away from the Hill and several College assemblies that discussed current events filled the limited free time of the students.

Toward the end of 1918, things finally began to look up. On Nov. 11, 1918, members of the SATC joined Gambier residents to celebrate the end of World War I with a parade through town. A few weeks later, on Dec. 6, the College lifted a period of quarantine. In Jan. 1919, the Collegian reported that during that evening, “Rosse hall was a veritable fairyland for the men who had been kept under the quarantine for so long and they ‘tripped the light fantastic’ until the wee, sma’ hours to music furnished by Parker’s orchestra.” Senior prom even took place at Rosse Hall that February. Long before the pandemic, students had begun cutting back on social activities due to the war, ultimately making the end of both world crises even more celebratory. 

As encapsulating as these reports may be, there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge of what the pandemic was like for the Kenyon and Gambier communities. The Kenyon Reveille, Kenyon’s yearbook and oldest student publication, was not produced in 1919 at all. Issues of the Collegian were published infrequently during the years of the influenza pandemic. In May 1920, staff writers on the Collegian expressed concern for their lack of resources and reporting: “As we write this we hate to think of how late this may be as we haven’t even got a printer for it yet!” 

Since firsthand student accounts of this time period are fairly limited, the heroic work of many individuals has been rendered invisible. In March 1919, an anonymous individual shared criticism with the Collegian regarding the shortfalls of its pandemic reporting. The critique serves as an homage to those who were left unnoticed: “The fellows who served as nurses, working in shifts of relief both day and night, and exposing themselves to direct contagion, deserved other recognition than a passing slur at their inexperience.” The individual went on to describe a lack of appreciation for Red Cross workers and community members who worked on serious cases and sent supplies to the College to care for those who were ill. 

The advent of 2022 has brought the world into another year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today Kenyon sees many of the same community efforts that the College witnessed in its response to the Spanish Flu, as students continue to wear masks indoors, get tested and self-isolate when they are feeling sick. Despite the many circumstances today that mirror the crisis of 1919, the effects of a pandemic are no doubt unique to the historical moments they reside in. It is nearly impossible to imagine fighting in a global war, without the resource of the vaccine, during the current pandemic.

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