STOries: High Marks During Difficult Times
The current outbreak of COVID-19 is not the first time St. Olaf College has responded to a severe pandemic, and the way that St. Olaf dealt with the 1918–19 outbreak is similar to measures being taken at the college today.
In the waning days of World War I, St. Olaf was faced with a new influenza virus that was ravaging the world. Called the Spanish flu because Spain was the first country to publicly report cases, the ensuing pandemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide.
Understanding the severity of the influenza gripping the nation and the world at the outset of his new presidency, St. Olaf President Lars W. Boe, installed as the college’s fourth president shortly before the academic year began in September 1918, spearheaded efforts to curtail the deadly outbreak before it could reach the St. Olaf community. The college enacted a campus-wide quarantine in the first week of October 1918. Everyone on campus was issued a face mask and expected to wear it when gathering in groups. Fresh air and sunshine were strongly recommended, plus gargling with a mild antiseptic two times a day. By the end of October, 42-year-old Boe felt the college had escaped the flu and, writing to one of St. Olaf’s founders, Harald Thorson, noted they had “a great deal to be thankful for.”
Boe’s optimism was short-lived. Following the rousing campus celebrations that marked the November 11th armistice declaration, ending four years of war with Germany, the first cases of the Spanish flu appeared on the Hill.
The St. Olaf student body of 550 included 228 male cadets who had enlisted in the Student Army Training Corp (S.A.T.C.), a military program held on campus to train officers for the war effort. Within days, more than 90 S.A.T.C. cadets and several women students were infected. The disparity in numbers was because the S.A.T.C. used different classrooms and, of course, lived in separate residences.
In her book, Manitou Analecta, longtime dean of women Gertrude M. Hilleboe noted that most of the women students in the fall of 1918 kept busy in their spare time sewing masks and “pneumonia jackets.” In late November, Boe wrote to former President John N. Kildahl, noting that “… the students have shown a wonderful spirit of self-control and willingness to help during [these] times.” Home economics students helped the overworked kitchen staff to prepare soups and hot drinks for the patients housed in old Ytterboe Hall, which had been converted into a hospital. For the students who had completed the course in home nursing, their training was immediately put to use alongside a few professional nurses. They fed the suffering students soup and treated them with aspirin, cough syrup, and camphor oil. Three of the nursing students soon became infected with the virus, but thankfully recovered.
The college mobilized an all-out quarantine effort to stop the virus from spreading further throughout the campus. In early December, six new cases had appeared, all young women. Boe promptly canceled all classes and the Christmas Festival. A week later, he closed the college and sent the students home for an early holiday break.
In a December 10, 1918, letter to students that appeared in the Manitou Messenger, Boe wrote:
“The changes and the attendant difficulties have been accepted by both teachers and students in a cheerful spirit. The patriotism of the student body has manifested itself in a willingness to put up with many discomforts and a readiness to make sacrifices.… The student body as a whole have been under rather strict quarantine regulations. For a while we considered ourselves exceedingly fortunate in comparison to many other schools and communities in not having a single case of influenza. But our turn came all of a sudden. All in all we have had about one hundred cases and four deaths.”
Working together, the St. Olaf community held fast through the pandemic, supporting and caring for one another during those unforgettable, difficult months. Classes resumed on January 3, 1919. The flu, vanquished for a time, returned briefly to the Hill, although the outbreak was small. Life on the Hill returned to normal in 1919.
But the Spanish influenza did not entirely disappear. The virus continued to mutate throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, becoming a seasonal flu that continues to reappear every fall.
The 1918 Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) Does Its Part DURING THE PANDEMIC
While more than 100 students were stricken with the flu in 1918, 140 healthy Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) cadets, including 17-year-old Ernest O. Lawrence of Canton, South Dakota, were temporarily quartered in Old Main. The men set up their cots in vacated classrooms and even in the president’s office, which the S.A.T.C. lieutenant soon made off limits. Peeved that he had to stop sleeping in Boe’s office, where he had been making himself useful by answering the phone, Lawrence abruptly went home without permission, deciding to prepare for U.S. Naval Academy entrance examinations rather than attend St. Olaf. In his trademark forthright manner, Boe, who was acquainted with the Lawrence family, reached out to young Lawrence, telling him that he had the makings of an excellent student and that the college doors remained open to him. Lawrence returned to St. Olaf in January 1919 and then transferred to South Dakota State University the following year. In a letter of appreciation to his former St. Olaf chemistry instructor, Paul M. Glasoe, Lawrence wrote that he and two other S.A.T.C. students received the highest marks in their chemistry class, adding, “This attests to the excellent foundation in chemistry we received under you last year.” It was a foundation that led to Lawrence becoming a renowned pioneer in nuclear science, eventually receiving the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the cyclotron, a circular particle accelerator.
Jeff Sauve is a local historian and regular contributor to St. Olaf Magazine.