Pomona’s first pandemic: A look back at the 1918 flu

Multiple soldiers wearing masks and hats march through campus.
The Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C) at Pomona College marches in the Armistice Day parade on Nov. 15, 1918. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in many ways. But a global pandemic has hit the 5Cs before — 100 years ago, Pomona College was struck by the 1918 flu pandemic, and opted to keep students on campus, enforce mask mandates and teach outside.

TSL went through the archives to see how the last global pandemic altered life at Pomona — the only 5C to exist at the time — and to compare it to life today as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

Campus and classroom adjustments

Prior to the 1918 pandemic, Pomona started hosting 300 to 500 men on campus for military training as part of the Student Army Training Corps program during World War I. The overwhelming majority took classes as well, according to Elijah Wilson Lyon’s “The History of Pomona College.”

Once the SATC recruits arrived on campus, social life was largely curtailed, and fraternities were suspended, according to Lyon. Soon after their arrival, the Spanish flu further limited social interactions on campus, according to TSL coverage that fall.

The situation in the Los Angeles area intensified after cases began popping up in September 1918. By the second week of October, an article in TSL provided eight flu prevention tips, first and foremost “avoid needless crowding.” 

Pomona didn’t send students home and instead “adopted radically different tactics from any other institution in Southern California,” according to a November 1918 edition of Camp and Campus: Pomona College War Newsletter.

The college worried that potentially exposed students would spread the flu if they returned home. It also didn’t want students to lose an entire quarter of work, according to the November 1918 newsletter. 

By contrast, Occidental College halted classes, closed its campus for seven weeks and sent students home by order of the Los Angeles Mayor Frederick Woodman.

Most of Pomona’s classes moved outdoors “on lawns, under the trees, on the steps – anywhere to be out in the air and sunshine,” according to the November newsletter. 

Pomona’s campus was largely split between SATC and the remaining students, who were mostly women. Interaction between the two halves of campus was nearly nonexistent, and the men and women attended classes separately during October and November, according to the November newsletter.

Because the division of campus made communication between male and female students “increasingly difficult,” an Oct. 29 article reminded students that “the Student Life is their paper, and that messages of any character may be placed by them in its Open Column.”

“Assurance is given that without fail the words will be brought to the eyes of the proper reader,” the article said.

Students were advised not to travel off campus and had to obtain a pass to do so. Those who left campus without permission would be “telegraphed to stay at home or bring a health certificate back with them,” according to the Oct. 29 article.

Travel in the Pomona, Ontario and Claremont areas was permitted, but students had to “ride on the outside of the streetcars” or use automobiles, according to the Oct. 29 article.

Pomona shortened the Thanksgiving break to just one day and advised students against leaving the area, according to Lyon.

Quarantine and isolation

By the end of October, a “large number of cases” developed among the SATC recruits, and the college responded by fully separating them from the rest of the college, according to an announcement to parents published in TSL. 

Crowded conditions at the Pomona Valley Hospital forced the college to devote a house on West Fifth Street to those recovering from the flu. With the help of Claremont residents and students, the house was “speedily changed from a bare, dusty, uninviting place to a most comfortable and home-like home,” according to an Oct. 22 article.

Two men sit on a porch in front of two women.
Pomona College did not send students home during the 1918 influenza pandemic instead quarantining the infected students and requiring masks. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

Harwood Hall — an academic building distinct from Harwood Court residence hall — also became a quarantine facility for women infected with the flu, earning the nickname “Harwood Flu Institute,” according to a Nov. 2 article. (Harwood Hall was a distinct building from the current residence hall Harwood Court, which was constructed in 1921. It has since been demolished).

A guard stood watch over Harwood, and a letter from the women there said, “Except from the nurse’s viewpoint, this might easily be a real hospital.” 

Before leaving Harwood, infected students needed to have a normal temperature for 24 hours, at which point they became convalescents. 

At a Halloween party, Blaisdell had to remind students “every now and then” to wear their masks. A TSL article described the masks as “such tragedies,” regretting that students at the party could not tell whether others were “disdainful or smiling” under their masks. 

No Pomona students died from the Spanish flu, but a professor’s wife, Viola Minor Westergaard, died Jan. 7, 1919. A bust of Westergaard’s face, which was sculpted by Burt Johnson, is on display at Honnold Mudd Library. 

The chairman of the City Board of Health for Claremont, Dr. J. A. Latimer, died after having “eliminated a great deal of suffering among the townspeople as well as among the college students,” according to a Jan. 28 article. “The fact is that he worked so hard and so continuously that he became physically incapable of resisting the disease.”

Masks and community response

Pomona students initially scoffed at the proposal of a mask mandate from then Pomona President James A. Blaisdell. 

“His statement was greeted not by giggles but by titterings,” according to an Oct. 25 TSL article. Students felt that wearing masks would amount to an “amusing spectacle.”

At a Halloween party, Blaisdell had to remind students “every now and then” to wear their masks. A TSL article described the masks as “such tragedies,” regretting that students at the party could not tell whether others were “disdainful or smiling” under their masks.

But the grassroots community responses in 1918 and today were markedly similar, according to Kathryn Wolford, a history professor at Scripps College who specializes in infectious diseases. 

Just as people volunteer in their communities, make their own masks to donate and run errands for the elderly today, these same measures were “extraordinarily popular in 1918,” Wolford said.

Volunteers, particularly women, ultimately answered the call to make masks for the community “with the vim and promptness characteristic of Pomona girls,” according to a Nov. 2 article. “The several hundred masked victims on the campus present an active testimony of their work.”

Student life — and The Student Life

An article reads "How to guard against the Spanish Influenza"
On Oct. 15, 1918, TSL published an article about the Spanish influenza and what precautions students should take against the flu. (TSL Archives)

Many TSL staffers withdrew from their positions on the paper during the pandemic.

The Oct. 29 TSL issue lamented that “news is scarce” because of campus restrictions and requested that students notify TSL of “anything unusual that has happened or is going to happen.”

Many organizations postponed events until after the flu passed and campus restrictions were lifted. The Alpha Kappa Society, a debate organization for women, had to indefinitely postpone their annual banquet honoring its new members but assured them that “a good time is awaiting everyone,” according to an Oct. 29 article.

Athletics also fell victim to the flu.

“Athletics, save for the military, were quite disrupted,” according to “Granite and Sagebrush,” a 1944 book by Pomona professor Frank Brackett. With its 50 men, the football team had to cease practicing after only a handful of students remained unaffected by the flu, according to the Nov. 2 issue

The chapel was shuttered for more than a month. Faculty and students gathered again for services — a requirement for students in those days — the morning of Dec. 6, according to a Dec. 10 article

Reopening 

By the middle of November 1918, no new cases had been reported for over a week, and the “comparatively small number” of remaining cases were not considered serious, according to the November war newsletter.

The November newsletter reported that the college should be commended for the “marvelous achievement” of having “stamped out” the Spanish flu on campus without significant disruptions to campus life. 

In the wake of these reports, campus life at Pomona largely returned to normal “with practically no restriction.” In one instance, the majority of students attended a football game in the pouring rain.

But Pomona’s experience with the Spanish flu was far from over. 

“We ‘spoke too soon.’ We mistook the first battle for the whole campaign,” the December newsletter ultimately reported. “We had simply driven [the flu] out to lie in ambush and take us unawares.”

The college experienced a “rapid multiplication” of cases and again transformed Harwood Hall into an emergency hospital facility. Harwood soon reached its capacity, forcing a “considerable number” of students to return home, according to the December newsletter.

This wave of cases affected students and Claremont residents alike, and after recognizing that many more students could face quarantine orders after possible exposure, the college determined that “regular college work should be discontinued.”

“Students who so desired were allowed to return to their homes,” the newsletter said. Those who remained could finish their classes to make up back work.

Because of these changes, the newsletter reported that “the Christmas vacation has virtually begun one week ahead of time,” with the hope that the virus would have subsided by the time classes resumed in early January.

By late January, a TSL article reported that the flu was no longer spreading among students, but because cases were still being reported among Claremont residents, limitations on campus events remained for at least another month.

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