“Some call it hell; I call it “Flue”: a look back at the 1918 pandemic

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Photo courtesy of Thresher Archives

By Morgan Gage 09/28/21 10:05 PM

In the history of the rice thresher, the publication of print editions has been suspended three times: last February in the midst of a historic winter storm, in the spring of 2020 during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. United and in 1918 during World War I and the coincident Spanish influenza pandemic. The last edition of the threshing machine in 1918 was published on May 25. Thresher staff wrote about the establishment of the Students’ Association and the poor quality of wartime food and ran advertisements, aimed at the student body on a militarized campus, for military uniforms for sale.

By the time the Spanish flu ravaged Houston in the fall, killing 2,100 Houstonians at the end of October, the thresher was no longer printing; therefore, first-hand accounts of student experience are scarce.

A 2018 blog post written by former Rice historian and graduate student Melissa Kean explored what was the only first-hand student account of the flu pandemic she had found, written 57 years later in 1975.



“Credit must be given to the staff of the Institute and to the Army Medical Corps for the effective manner in which the situation was handled,” wrote E. Finley Carter (Class of 1922). “With the start of the epidemic, one of the dormitories was converted into a hospital staffed with army doctors and nurses who treated the many flu patients.”

Although Carter made reference to a student dying early, before the threat of the flu was evident, he wrote that, as he recalled, there had been no student deaths, regardless. the many deaths at “A&M and other institutions”. Despite the lack of fatalities, Carter wrote that he himself struggled to breathe to climb the stairs of Lovett Hall after recovering from the worst of the flu.

In a maintenance with the Rice Historical Review, Kean discussed some of the potential reasons why first-hand evidence from Rice’s student body is lacking.

“In the first-hand account, we see that all of the doctors and nurses at Rice Field Hospital were Nursing Sisters and Medics because the whole campus was under military regulation because there was a war going on.” , Kean said. “As the Spanish flu ravaged Houston, we were in the middle of a world war and that had to take precedence over everything else, and we did not close our doors.”

Kean also said the hiatus on student posts, along with the student body’s lower standards for personal safety, may have contributed to the lack of master accounts.

Interspersed with advertisements for war savings stamps, military recruiting efforts and war updates, the October 24, 1918 Houston Chronicle edition covered several aspects of the developing influenza pandemic. Rice University, known at the time as the Rice Institute, planned to play a practice football game this Saturday. The Chronicle wrote: “Flu at Rice Institute lost football team, but worst is over”, even as they reported newspaper ads being used to raise awareness of public health crisis .

That same issue advertised that the United States Public Health Department was sending doctors to patients with influenza or pneumonia in Houston who were unable to reach their own doctors. Pharmacies have announced miracle cures against the Spanish flu and its after-effects. The Houston Chronicle editorial called on the Houston community to respect the order banning public gatherings – an order that only lasted a few weeks.

However, while the official accounts of Rice’s students of the influenza pandemic in 1918 are nonexistent, the threat of the disease did not evaporate by the start of the following year. The Spanish flu was still considered a threat in 1920, although deaths slowed throughout 1919. In the Thresher, references to the flu that was exceptionally fatal in young adults the same continued.

In the March 23, 1919 issue, a poem focusing on flu symptoms was published under the name “Casey.” The poem focuses on the experience of someone who was presumably a student.

“Sometimes, maybe, you get well,” Casey wrote after describing the symptoms. “Some call it ‘Flue’, I call it Hell! “

In the same issue, the Thresher reported on a comment that Mr. Caldwell, the instructor of History 300, made about the impact of the flu on the young Rice Institute.

“We were about half a century behind during the influenza pandemic,” Caldwell said.

At May 1, 1919, The Thresher reported the death of Ira South, the “first Rice boy to ask the committee to withdraw from school” and “the first Institute boy in the service.” He was known as a literary scholar and had published several poems before his death from the flu.

“[T]The Saturday Evening Post accepted a short woody skit titled “Gone”. Before the publication of this little poem … [he] was struck by the flu epidemic and was ‘missing’ from his many friends, ”the drummer wrote. “Ira South died of pneumonia at Portsmouth Naval Hospital on October 11, 1918.”

The 1919 Thresher may not have had a satirical backpage joking about COVID-19 testing, but it did contain sections of jokes submitted by students, some of whom darkly tackled the ongoing pandemic. In a joke of May 22, 1919 problem, Saint-Pierre asks a young woman how she arrived in paradise, and she answers: “I ‘Smoked’.

Several other jokes posted by the Thresher made reference to the pandemic. A published poem October 23, 1919 laughs at doctors who preventively diagnose people with the flu. In 1920, a writer made fun of a couple confined to bed because of the “flu” and an epidemic at A&M.

In the January 22, 1920 Thresher, the war activities of a Rice faculty member as National Secretary of the Red Cross are recounted, and a postponed trip due to his influenza illness is mentioned. The February 5, 1920 The issue featured an ad encouraging a young man to buy flowers for his “daughter” who was isolated from the flu. At February 27, 1920The Thresher reported that the University of Texas, now UT Austin, awarded a new badge, the “Flu T,” to 77 women at the university who have completed the flu protocols.

Specific incidences of students catching the flu continue to be documented in 1923, although Thresher’s coverage of influenza has declined. The impact of the Spanish flu was exacerbated by the world war in which the Rice Institute also played a role.

In the 1920 edition of The Thresher, recognition was given to three members of the Class of 1920 who would not graduate because they were deceased. Two men died in action and another from the flu.

“Joseph Weldon Haycock, who suffered from the flu while in the Training Corps, made a sacrifice no less than his two heroic classmates,” the drummer wrote.

First-hand accounts from this period are scarce, but we can get a sense of the student experience through jokes and tributes to classmates. Maybe a century from now, Thresher’s writers will uncover our old articles, read the Backpage, and piece together what it was like to be a Rice student during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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