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Penn History

By Mira Shetty, University Archives Summer Research Fellow, 2018, with J.J. Ahern

Penn was affected significantly less by the influenza epidemic than other parts of Philadelphia. However, it did still impact members of the Penn community. Penn was able to mitigate the spread of the flu on campus through precautionary measures, management of the spread of the epidemic, cancellations of student group events, and cancellations of certain classes.

The Fall 1918 semester started on September 27. On October 4, Pennsylvania state authorities closed theaters and saloons, and banned large indoor public gatherings. Dr. A.A. Cairns, the president of the Philadelphia Board of Health, also closed all schools and churches in Philadelphia. However, Cairns did not see the need to cancel classes at Penn. That same day the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania was quarantined; and Dr. Wilmer Krusen, the Director of the Department of Public Health and Charities (DPHC), issued an order prohibiting public social gatherings. The Provost, Edgar Fahs Smith, cancelled a large football rally that was planned for the fourth as a precaution, as well. At this point, there had been twelve cases of influenza reported on Penn’s campus.

As early as October 2 Dr. H. C. Wood, Jr, Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, requested that an Influenza Emergency Hospital be established to handle influenza cases on campus. Two fraternity houses, Delta Psi and Phi Kappa Psi, which were supposed to be used as barracks for the Naval Unit, were converted to a temporary hospital under the direction of Dr. John W. Hunter. By October 7, there were thirty patients in the quarantine ward, three new cases, and no deaths on campus. The new cases were taken to one of the fraternity houses. That same day The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that the influenza was under control at the university, stating that “There have been no deaths, and so far none of the cases are serious, which is especially encouraging, now that the epidemic seems to be at its height throughout the city”.

On October 5, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported that the ban on public meetings caused many student groups to cancel upcoming events and meetings. These groups included the Christian Association, the Zelosophic Literary Society, and various churches on campus. Also on the fifth, a university-wide Liberty Loan rally to raise money for World War I was cancelled. It had previously been exempted from the ban because it was an open air gathering. The next day, October 6, there were three new cases of influenza on campus.

On October 8, the Dental School cancelled classes to protect dental students from patients with influenza, after twelve dental students had become ill. The Law School closed the next day, as one member died from influenza. There were also three new cases on campus, but thirteen patients were discharged from the temporary hospital. On October 10, there were 29 cases being treated at the emergency hospital and three more new cases on campus.

On October 11, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported that the Board of Health had begun to fumigate dormitories to prevent the spread of influenza around campus. There were 27 student patients at the emergency hospital, and the Daily Pennsylvanian reported that the epidemic was waning at Penn.

On the thirteenth, there was only one new case at the emergency hospital on campus. The next day, four new students were admitted, but six were discharged. The day after that, one new student was admitted and two were discharged. Zero were reported to be in a dangerous condition.

As the number of new influenza cases decreased, the Daily Pennsylvanian acknowledged on October 14 that many students probably were not greatly affected by the epidemic, stating “University students are perhaps unaware of the vast work that has been going on during the past ten days in combating the influenza epidemic, insofar as it affects the vicinity of the campus.

The Wharton Evening School, which was supposed to have opened on October 4, ended up starting on October 16 after multiple postponements. By October 17, there were only two new cases of influenza on campus and most of the patients at emergency hospitals were improving. The emergency hospitals on campus were expected to return to barracks for the Naval Unit shortly, as an October 17 Daily Pennsylvanian article presumed, “If present improvement keeps up, there will soon be no need for the emergency hospital”.

The Dental School reopened on October 18, but the School of Medicine remained closed until the epidemic subsided, as many students were volunteering across Philadelphia. On October 19, nine students were discharged from the emergency hospital, and the two remaining patients were transferred to the University Hospital.

The fraternity houses that were used as a temporary hospital were turned into barracks for the Naval Unit on October 22. On the same day, there was news of the Christian Association planning social events as precautionary restrictions were expected to be removed soon. However, on October 24, the Board of Health continued the ban on public meetings because even though the epidemic was waning on campus, the death rate in Philadelphia was higher than when the order was first announced.

On October 28, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported that theaters and other places of amusement were to reopen two days later. However, the Christian Association chapel was still closed at this time due to military orders preventing members of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) from attending public gatherings. Most Penn students were part of the SATC, and the epidemic got in the way of SATC operations. Provost Smith stated in a December 13 Daily Pennsylvanian Article that “the influenza almost paralyzed work in the unit”.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that a sanitation squad that had been organized near the beginning of the influenza outbreak on campus had helped keep the epidemic under control at Penn. The sanitation squad inspected dormitory rooms, investigated plumbing, cleaned toilets, examined restaurants, and fumigated rooms in order to ensure University spaces were kept in a healthy condition. The October 22 article states, “Much of the credit for the extraordinary freedom Pennsylvania students have enjoyed from the influenza epidemic is given to the members of the Sanitation Department…”.

By the end of October, much of campus activity had returned to normal. Most influenza restrictions had been removed, and many student volunteers returned to classes.

On November 8, there was a report that by the ninth, the entire state of Pennsylvania was expected to have been free from influenza and the statewide ban on public meetings would be removed.