Campus Life Editor
When word spread across the world of a new virus emerging in Wuhan, China in early January of 2020, the idea of it bringing life around the globe to an absolute stand still was entirely out of the picture for most Americans. Only eleven years prior, the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic as the H1N1 influenza virus began to make headlines around the world. This virus, belonging to the same subtype of influenza seen in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, concerned health officials and governments worldwide. In a turn of extremely fortunate events, the H1N1 virus proved to be relatively mild, and, to many, it was simply just an inconvenience. Life around the world returned to normal with little to no interruption.
So, when news spread of the Coronavirus emerging in China, many believed that the virus would simply fizzle out or remain overseas, and not impact the everyday American citizen. As infection rates climbed and the death toll of the Coronavirus grew worldwide, the possibility of a life-changing pandemic became a difficult reality for Americans to accept. However, lockdowns, quarantines, and compulsory mask usage are not entirely new concepts, as the world experienced another deadly pandemic nearly 102 years ago. Yet the lessons learned from the 1918 influenza pandemic became a forgotten story in American history — until recently, when educators and officials began searching for lessons learned during that horrific pandemic in hopes of weathering the current storm.
Founded in 1887, Whittier College has endured many trying historical events: from wars, to the Great Depression, and, most recently, its second major deadly pandemic. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Whittier College closed its doors for a historic second time in response to a rapidly-spreading, deadly virus; the first time being in response to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which ravaged the world and infected more than one third of the world’s population, killing upwards of 50 million people in one year. So, as we experience today’s deadly pandemic, lessons learned from Whittier of old can shed new light on our experiences today.
The Quaker Campus dove into historical archives of newspapers, health board advisories, and student publications from the 1918 influenza pandemic to uncover the story of Whittier’s first major pandemic experience.
In the early hours of Sept. 12, 1918, sixteen-year-old Walter Bruhms, a cadet at the Whittier State School, attended his normal drill activities. Suddenly overcome with extreme exhaustion and chills, Bruhms was relieved of his duties and permitted to rest in his dormitory to recuperate. Rapidly, Bruhms’ health deteriorated and he was rushed to the hospital in the late hours of the night. His temperature soared, he was overcome with coughing fits, and he became delirious. Only two days after Bruhms had begun to take ill, he was pronounced dead. His death came as a surprise to the Whittier community, as he was described as a vigorous boy in peak health prior to his illness, and his death marked the first death from illness at the school in over six years. Health officials in the City were alarmed and approached the death of the boy with a cautious investigation. News had begun to spread around the world of an influenza that caused high fevers and was proving to be deadly. However, news of this virus was greatly overshadowed by the reality of global war, as World War I raged on in the Western Front in Europe. Amid the constant chaos of World War I, there lingered an even deadlier threat — influenza. However, life in Whittier remained relatively normal until news of a second boy’s death once again shocked the City.
On Oct. 10, eighteen-year-old Arthur Hicks was reported in the Whittier News as being seriously ill with influenza. Mere hours after the publication of the paper, Hicks passed away in his family home in Uptown Whittier, leading health officials to make drastic decisions in order to protect the health of the City. The following day, on Oct. 11, Whittier health officials sprung to action, declaring a city-wide closure.
Dr. W.H. Stokes, the City’s Health Officer, ordered the closure of amusement halls, bowling alleys, barber shops, schools, places of worship, and, in addition, all public and private gatherings were banned. Residents were urged to remain in their homes and refrain from engaging in close contact with other individuals. The Whittier News published a public health notice, written by Dr. Stokes, which outlined to residents the importance of their compliance with the quarantine order, as well as ways to prevent the spread of influenza. The State Board of Health ran a column in every newspaper outlining the steps to prevent the spread of the virus.
These steps included avoiding crowds and maintaining distances from sick individuals, as well as advising the public to keep indoor spaces properly ventilated. Many of these same recommendations are being implemented in our current battle against COVID-19. Parallels between the two pandemics are striking, as some of the same tools used to battle influenza are being used today, such as social distancing and the importance of ventilation and separation of sick individuals from healthy ones.
In accordance with the city-wide quarantine order, the Liberty Loan Dance was cancelled and the City was put on a stand still. In the next few days, influenza cases in Whittier would jump to over 120, with a third of them being critical. The Spanish Flu had begun to take hold of the City. However, unlike many other cities at the time, Whittier was swift and decisive in her actions to protect the health of residents. While the California Health Board was hesitant to make any drastic decisions regarding closures, Whittier implemented serious health orders that curbed the spread of the virus, including the closure of schools, the College, and places of worship.
In direct contrast to our situation today, in which the State government has been direct in its reaction to the spread of COVID-19, the California government in 1918 opposed closures of schools and instead endorsed local responses to the pandemic. Whittier’s response, which was swift and decisive, undoubtedly saved many lives, as the death rate within the City was relatively low in comparison to other neighboring cities.
Although Whittier implemented a quarantine order early on, influenza’s reach within the City was still devastating. On Oct. 21, the Red Cross ran a desperate plea in the Whittier News urging residents of the City to volunteer to serve as nurses, as many nurses within the City had been stricken with the flu. The situation was dire and women with any nursing training were encouraged to volunteer their services. Many women of Whittier answered the call assisting in the fight against influenza, and stepped up to treat the critically ill.
By late October, many believed that the virus’ hold on the City had loosened and that the danger had since passed. However, this would prove to be fatally wrong.
Within the coming weeks, Whittier’s battle with the virus continued, proving to be more and more difficult. Dr. Stokes urged citizens to remain cautious, writing “I am anything but an alarmist, but it is well that the people should know this is an exceedingly contagious disease. It is no respecter of persons. One of the men who died this week was as fine a specimen of physical manhood as could be seen anywhere, yet he succumbed in a few days time.” The situation was serious, with healthy individuals succumbing to the fever in a matter of days. The month of October would prove to be a trying time for the City; however, the deadliest month was yet to come.
Although Whittier closed in urgency, a critical error was made in the decision to reopen. On Nov. 9 the ban was lifted and schools were permitted to return to session. Whittier College reopened its doors, requiring students and faculty to wear masks during class. The requirement to wear masks was met with slight protest, but records show that individuals, for the most part, did comply. (Much like our current experiences, there were ads taken out in the Whittier News protesting the closure of churches and the mask ordinances.)
As seen in our current fight against COVID-19, the decision to reopen too early is often met with dire consequences. It is a difficult balance to maintain between closure and reopening, especially in regards to a highly contagious virus. In regards to the reopening of Whittier in 1918, the consequences were severe. November and December proved to be the deadliest months for Whittier during the pandemic, with cases soaring to over 564. Unfortunately, Whittier College was not immune to the impacts of the pandemic, and two College students succumbed to the illness. The first College death was of fourth-year Paul Pierce, who had passed away on Nov. 1, and the second College death was fourth-year Donald Story, who had been in peak health and had attended classes just three days prior to his death on Nov. 18. Many students and faculty also fell ill during this time.
On Nov. 29, health officials were prepared to employ a new tactic: a case-by-case quarantine order that required all homes experiencing cases of influenza to remain inside and to be provided with care by the Red Cross. Whittier health officials wrote, “Our greatest danger now, is the great American tendency to forget easily and to believe the peril is over. Don’t become careless. Do your part.” Multiple ads taken out in the newspaper also urged citizens to “Cover up each cough and sneeze, if you don’t, you’ll spread disease.” The City began to employ the house-by-house quarantine order in which homes experiencing cases of influenza were marked with signs noting them as flu homes, and, by the end of December, there were over 100 quarantined homes. The quarantine method seemed to work well in Whittier and by February, Whittier reported less than ten homes under quarantine.
It had appeared as if the threat of the flu had greatly decreased. Whittier, with a population of nearly 7,000 had suffered between 100 – 200 deaths. The low death toll within the City can be attributed to the efforts of residents to abide by health ordinances and the early closure of the City. Despite the best efforts of doctors of the time, the flu was incredibly deadly and without modern medical treatments, was very difficult to treat. The horrors of the 1918 pandemic although numerous in number appeared to vanish from American historical memory. Overshadowed by the global war effort, the 1918 pandemic would soon become the forgotten pandemic. So, with the emergence of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative to note that there are methods to lessening the effects of a deadly virus, and that our best line of defense is in social distancing and limiting contact with other individuals. The lessons learned in 1918 can be directly applied to today. By listening to health officials, we can curb the spread and ultimate impact of the virus. Just as Whittier of old weathered the storm of the 1918 pandemic, Whittier of new will make it through our current pandemic today.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Whittier News
Jackie Au is a fourth-year Political Science major with a minor in Anthropology. This is her fourth year working for the QC and her third year as a Section Editor for Campus Life. She is also a member of the College’s Women’s Water Polo team. Her hobbies include road cycling, making pottery, and attempting to sell her silly little pots.