Think swine flu is bad?

    In September of 1918, Northwestern students returned to school only to find that welcome banners had been replaced with little red signs on their peers’ doors that read: “Suspicious Case. No Admittance.” The Spanish influenza epidemic plagued the university and the rest of the nation as World War I entered its final months. For three weeks, the administration put students under quarantine and required students to stay in their dorms except when in class or hiking outdoors. The onset of Spanish influenza was quick — students could have been hit with it while walking to class or handing in a paper — and the symptoms, which included blood-tinged froth, were extreme.

    By mid-October of 1918, three students died from this pandemic (675,000 Americans died from the influenza). Under those circumstances, the student body seemed relatively untroubled: The Northwestern Weekly published only three articles about the Spanish influenza during the entire 1918-1919 school year, according to University Archives. Granted, war in Europe and the recent establishment of ROTC shadowed campus coverage of the Spanish influenza. Today, however, there seems to be a new swine flu advisory released every day, despite the less severe consequences.

    After the administration lifted the quarantine in early November 1918, The Northwestern Weekly published only one more article on the return of the influenza even amidst the height of flu season. The second outbreak a few months later, in December 1918, resulted in a less severe quarantine which required all students living in dorms to report to preceptresses, modern-day CAs, before 7:15 a.m. each morning to ensure that no one with any symptoms attended class. In case of symptoms of the flu, students were confined to their rooms and placed the little red signs on their doors.

    Instead of the Purell spray contraptions inundating the cafeterias, libraries and dorms this fall, the health commissioner of Chicago in 1918 compiled a lengthy list of advice that appeared in several city newspapers in an attempt to stifle the spread of the flu. The list included even unconventional little tidbits, by modern standards: “Don’t overeat, […] don’t become constipated, […] don’t get your feet wet [and] don’t forget that chill is always a dangerous symptom.” This list seems belittling, but look around campus today and you will find students walking around with masks, bathrooms signs reminding us to wash our hands, and teachers warning us not to come to class if we are feeling under the weather. Advice was as easily dispensed back then as it is today.

    With the height of flu season quickly approaching, hopefully Northwestern’s Purell contraptions will work and students take preventative measures to avoid getting sick. And if the administration must take extreme measures and place severe limitations on students activities, let us hope that they dust off the somewhat draconian warning given long ago: “Disobedience of these orders will be punished by measures which will insure obedience.”


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