Dartmouth Medicine HomeCurrent IssueAbout UsContact UsSearchPodcasts

PDF Version   Printer-Friendly Version

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Cold Comfort

Dartmouth, and the towns around Hanover, did not suffer as badly but were not spared. The College recorded 325 cases of the flu. One faculty member, five students, and 10 soldiers posted at a military training detachment on campus succumbed to the disease.

"One of the first signs of this epidemic would have been that the number of [obituary] pages in the [local newspaper] would increase threefold," explains Dr. Elmer Pfefferkorn, a virologist and professor emeritus of microbiology at Dartmouth Medical School. "This really reflects the extraordinary death rate from that epidemic. It's unprecedented in medical history. There hasn't been an event like that. Not even wars and starvations and other untoward events... have [had] this extraordinary mortality."

The 1918 flu was notable not only for how many people died, but also for who died; an unusual number of victims were previously healthy 25- to 35- year-olds. "The traditional influenza would kill off the elderly and the very young—and certainly those groups fared badly in the [1918] epidemic," Pfefferkorn explains. But "the astonishing thing was the peak of death rates in the young, presumably most healthy, group we had. It was a great social tragedy because . . . [that] generation had yet to make its major contribution to society."

Those who lived in close quarters, like military barracks, were especially susceptible to the virus. And wartime demands meant that many college campuses had been turned into military installations. At Dartmouth, 272 men in an Army training detachment were barracked in the gymnasium, and 695 students in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) were barracked in dorms. Commons, then the student dining hall (in the building that today houses the Collis Student Center), functioned as a military mess. When students and soldiers began falling ill with flu, the gym was turned into a hospital and College Hall into a convalescent facility.

Clifford Orr, a Dartmouth freshman in the fall of 1918, wrote to his parents regularly during the flu epidemic.

"Spanish influenza, grippe, and pneumonia have made their appearances here. . . . Two fellows in North Fayerweather have pneumonia. I only hope I can steer clear of it. At present I am okay."
—Clifford Orr

The November 1918 issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine rued the fact that "Dartmouth and Hanover, healthful as is their location, were unable to escape the ravages of the epidemic of Spanish influenza. . . . But the epidemic was brought to a stop here much more quickly than in most communities, and the percentage of fatalities was lower, so that we may congratulate ourselves on our good fortune in escaping as early as we did.

"That which contributed to the quick control of the situation was the stopping of all class work of the College for a period of two weeks. All academic work ceased on the morning of October 1, the day of the induction of the SATC, to be resumed on the morning of October 14, when further spread of the disease

appeared to be checked. During that period, the outdoor work of the SATC went on in intensified form. The only activity was the drilling of units, and the students were thereby kept out of doors for at least nine hours a day—in itself a good preventive of the influenza."

The Dartmouth archives also contain a number of letters and journals describing the events of that fall. Clifford Orr, a DC '22 who went on to become a writer, including for the New Yorker magazine, chronicled the epidemic in letters to his parents. Harold Rugg, a DC '06 who in 1918 was on the staff of Dartmouth's Baker Library, kept a journal that fall. And the archives also contain letters to and from Ernest Martin Hopkins, a DC '01 and the president of Dartmouth College from 1916 to 1945. Here are a few excerpts from these accounts:

September 22, 1918; from Clifford Orr to his mother:
Spanish influenza, grippe, and pneumonia have made their appearances here. Several soldiers have the former and in one dormitory two students have it seriously, while eight or 10 others think they are "coming down" with it. Two fellows in North Fayerweather have pneumonia. I only hope I can steer clear of it. At present I am okay. . . .

A professor of political science died last night, and the flags are half-mast today. He was all right yesterday noon, and many are the rumors of the cause of his death—everything from influenza to suicide. [This death was not, in the end, attributed to influenza.]

The epidemic has brought again into popularity the old rhyme:

I had a little bird
and his name was Enza,
I opened up the cage
and in-flew-enza.

September 25, 1918; Harold Rugg's journal:
Called on [Donald] Powell, who is sick

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Back to Table of Contents

Dartmouth Medical SchoolDartmouth-Hitchcock Medical CenterWhite River Junction VAMCNorris Cotton Cancer CenterDartmouth College