1918 Influenza Pandemic

May 13, 2020

By Shane Burgess, University of Arizona Vice President for Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension

During disruptive and stressful experiences, I find it heartening – you may, too – to remember our history and heritage. Those before us started higher education in Arizona. Since 1885, we have changed the economic trajectory for thousands of families, helped hundreds of thousands of Arizonans improve their health, and controlled human and animal disease epidemics. Those before us built a foundation of resilience, innovation, entrepreneurship, egalitarianism, and compassion.

All these traits helped the University of Arizona in Fall 1918 weather a semester unlike any other – except, perhaps, Spring 2020.

By the end of the summer of 1918, the U.S. had won the decisive Battle of Cantigny and the Second Battle of the Marne, fixed the Great War’s outcome in the Allies’ favor and, by doing so, announced itself as no longer an economic also-ran. While American families were grieving 116,000 war dead, an influenza pandemic struck that became a much greater killer and took a terrible economic toll.

UA students were quarantined on October 3. If students living in town wanted to continue classes, they had to move to campus for the duration. Students’ Army Training Corps soldiers posted at West Gate restricted access to university grounds.

100 students fell ill. On October 20, two died and classes were suspended.

Herring Hall, the Women's League Building, and the top floor of Agriculture Hall also were designated hospital wards for SATC. The Red Cross sent bed socks, pneumonia jackets, nightshirts, sweaters, wristlets, food for convalescents, plus hot coffee for soldiers on guard duty on cold nights. For over two weeks, a number of courageous faculty members stayed on campus day and night, assisting in nursing, operating kitchens, and fumigating quarters.[1]

195,000 Americans died from influenza … that October alone.

Tucsonans and university students alike celebrated Armistice Day with bonfires and dancing in the streets. The lack of social distancing was fuel to the pandemic’s fire. Public health officers ordered that everyone wear face masks. Pima County deaths peaked in November, though no one knew so at the time. There were no computer models to project when the worst would hit.

Conditions had eased on campus, however, and quarantine was lifted on November 14. It wasn’t safe yet for classes to resume so university leaders focused efforts on recruiting. They marketed their programs specifically to returning servicemen.

All men who entered college in early January could receive a year's credit by the end of June. During the winter term (January 2 – March 21), they could take courses listed in the fall 1918 catalog, then move into a spring term that ended June 21. The schedule eliminated examination weeks, vacations, and extra holidays.

Just like today, 1918 at the UA was scary and unsure. Just as I’ve seen you do these last nine weeks, on campus and statewide, College of Agriculture faculty, staff and students worked with each other toward a common goal. Most importantly, they worked for each other.

No matter what you do these coming days, you are no less part of tomorrow’s legacy than you were before SARS-COV2 virus existed as a human pathogen. It will be with us for years and we must find a way to live with it. Like our 1918 forebears, you have earned a special place in our history. Future generations will look to see what you did when they face their own difficult challenges.

The rest of 2020 will be hard, and a lot will be asked of you. We will be challenged again and again during these next many long months. I will forever carry with me pride to be a part of us and remember that the most important thing we did was to work together for each other.

[1]Elm, Adelaide. 1985. "The University of Arizona: The War Years, 1917-1918." Arizona and the West 27, no. 1 (Spring): 37-54.

Media contact:
Bethany Rutledge, director of administration and communications
520-621-7198, rutledge@cals.arizona.edu