Montana State University

Montana State canceled school term over 1918 influenza

May 20, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Soldiers are treated in an influenza ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. during the epidemic of 1918-1919. At Montana State College, stricken members of the Student Army Training Corps were sometimes treated in campus sewing rooms. (Source: Library of Congress. Photo by Harris and Ewing).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Influenza once canceled classes for almost an entire term at Montana State University.

Over 90 years ago, while the Spanish flu was on its way to killing 50 million people around the world, five million in the United States and 5,000 in Montana, students registered for the fall 1918 term at MSU, then called Montana State College. Within a month, the epidemic struck the college. School officials called off classes until after Christmas.

"Everything closed down. It was huge," retired MSU historian Pierce Mullen said recently.

Mullen doesn't know how many MSC students died from the influenza epidemic, but an article he and professor Michael Nelson, former MSU librarian, co-authored and published in the spring 1987 issue of "Montana: the Magazine of Western History" said the campus in general suffered less than Bozeman and Gallatin County. Gallatin County reported 650 cases of influenza. Eighty-seven people, counting MSC students, died in Bozeman.

Mullen and Nelson wrote that most MSC students left campus until January and received a full-year's credit for their classes. Instructors adapted by deleting the least important material from their courses and accelerating their work. The Army required members of the Student Army Training Corps to stay on campus, however, and many of them became sick.

"The school used sewing rooms in the home economics department as a ward," the article said. "Townspeople donated linens, and volunteer students from the foods classes cooked."

The Spanish flu, in general, struck the healthiest males the hardest, Mullen said during a recent interview.

"Young men between 17-18 and 25-26 were really hard hit by the flu," he commented. "I think it's still not understood why they should suffer so disproportionately."

MSU's Renne Library contains no issues of the student newspaper from the fall of 1918. Starting in January 1919, however, The Weekly Exponent ran articles about campus immunizations and deaths from influenza.

The Jan. 31, 1919 issue, for example, announced that the state bacteriologist's wife would administer the first dose of an anti-pneumonia serum to female students at MSC. The article concluded by saying, "The flu situation in Bozeman is greatly improved, and it is expected that the ban on public gatherings, social and otherwise, will soon be lifted."

A front-page article in the same issue said that student Glenn Dyer became sick in October and died Jan. 30, 1919 from sickness following the Spanish influenza.

"The men of the SATC who had the pleasure of his acquaintance mourn his loss," the article said. "His parents have the sympathy of the entire student body."

A March 21, 1919 article said faculty member Emil Jahnke died at age 28 from influenza and his body would be shipped to Minnesota as soon as his wife was well enough to travel. She was recovering from the Spanish influenza. Jahnke is not known to be related to Joel Jahnke, current professor in MSU's Department of Film and Photography.

The same issue announced that Robert Cooley, son of professor R.A. Cooley, died as a result of pneumonia, following the influenza. He had been sick since the latter part of February.

Historian Mullen said the 1918-1919 influenza spanned the globe, but it was called the Spanish flu because Spain was a neutral country during World War I. Most of Europe was at war in 1918, and censorship prevented the leakage of accurate information regarding infectious diseases. In 1915-16, a major typhus outbreak occurred in central Europe. Spain, then a neutral country, first reported the pandemic accurately.

Oddly enough, Mullen added, a similar situation occurred recently when Mexico's "excellent infectious disease reporting system" released accurate reports on the present flu situation. And just as Mexico is feeling the economic impact from swine flu, or H1N1, Spain suffered because its name was associated with influenza.

"Spain got nailed. Mexico got nailed," Mullen said.

The influenza of 1918-19 originated as an avian infection in far western China, Mullen said. It was fairly mild in the spring of 1918, but it mutated into a more virulent strain that accompanied U.S. soldiers as they returned home from Europe at the end of World War I.

"The real killer arrived in late August and early September (of 1918) and passed about Thanksgiving time," Mullen and Nelson wrote in their 1987 article. "A final, third wave, came about Christmas time and lingered until about spring."

Ironically, news about the end of World War I -- which killed anywhere between 9 and 16.5 million people -- often overshadowed news about the Spanish flu, Mullen said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or