Amherst’s First Pandemic Before COVID-19

More than a month has passed since the college made the decision to move to remote learning because of the coronavirus  pandemic. While the current COVID-19 situation feels (and is) unprecedented, this outbreak is not the first time that Amherst has navigated a pandemic threatening campus. Using the digitized copies of The Amherst Student provided by the Archives & Special Collections, we can go back to the fall of 1918 and look back at how the Amherst community handled its first pandemic: the Spanish Flu.

The first issue of The Student from that semester came out on Monday, Sept. 23, with no mention of the nascent pandemic. With World War I still dragging on in Europe, most coverage focused on the war effort and Amherst’s contributions to it. On the last page, however, there is an obituary section for Amherst students and alumni who had recently died, rather ominous for a campus that would experience its first cases of a deadly new influenza within a week

By the next edition, the Spanish Flu had made its arrival on campus and was the subject of much of the paper’s coverage. The first headline read “Amherst Quarantined Because of Epidemic” and described the wave of panic that had spread across campus the previous Friday. Rumors had started to spread that the college would be sending students back home, raising fears that without school, many men would be sent off to Europe to fight.

Later that Friday night, the student body had a meeting and quashed these rumors but informed students that they would not be allowed to leave the town of Amherst indefinitely. Representatives from the Board of Health advised the college and its students to “proceed with regular college work and to hold classes as usual.” Classes that day had been cancelled, and the college said it was considering holding classes outdoors to avoid contamination.

President Alexander Meiklejohn, the eighth president of Amherst College, said that it was a difficult and rapidly changing situation, but an op-ed in The Student lauded him for considering the “best good of the students and of the community.”

The Student also noted that there were a variety of opinions on campus about how to respond to the outbreak. Although only two “slight” cases were reported, some called for a cancellation of classes or a strict quarantine in the dorms, while others wanted all students sent home from campus.

Amherst’s upcoming  football game against Middlebury had been cancelled at the request of the Health Board, who cited Middlebury’s 75 cases as a reason to keep their football players away from Amherst’s.

In that same issue, The Student published a list of “Influenza Precautions” from the college doctor, Dr. Paul C. Phillips, for students to follow. These suggestions included: “Don’t Worry, Don’t Crowd, Avoid the Common Drinking Cup and Live the Hygienic Life.” Good advice then and just as relevant now.

A week later, The Student reported that Meiklejohn had solicited the help of the Amherst dormitories and fraternities to keep the Spanish Flu under control. Every building would have several men monitoring the health of each student and inspecting the cleanliness of each room. Dr. Phillips had bulletins placed in every building that outlined the new health policies, including increased janitorial work, the isolation of students with cold or flu-like symptoms, an 11 p.m. curfew and a continued ban on leaving the town of Amherst.

The Student went on to warn those who looked to ignore the new health recommendations. “With few exceptions the quarantine regulations have been carefully followed. But it is these few exceptions that keep the situation dangerous. In order to permanently check the epidemic every man in Amherst must obey all the quarantine regulations. A single failure will undo all the good work done by other men.”

The next edition of The Student, however, unfortunately began with the news of the death of a first-year student from Sheffield, Massachusetts named Harold E. Bradway. By then, there were “about 20 cases” in the college infirmary, with Bradway the only campus fatality from the disease.

After Bradway’s death, Meiklejohn suspended classes and chapel indefinitely per the advice of medical authorities who told him it would be good to keep students outside and in the fresh air. Although the State Board of Health stated that the worst of the epidemic had passed in western Massachusetts, some medical advisors at Amherst feared that “the climax has not yet been reached.” The Student also cited Dr. Phillips as saying that he suspected the disease was being spread across campus by people with milder cases, those who thought they just had a minor cold. Those men, he said, were “a menace to the health of the college,” and he advised all students to report any illnesses to the school.

By the following week, the situation improved greatly. Most stories focused on upcoming sporting events, the imminent visit of a British educational mission and the continued war effort. Although classes had been cancelled for 11 days, The Student reported that “classes will start some time this week, it is hoped.”

The number of new cases reported in print began to dwindle,  and The Student noted that although “the danger is not nearly passed . . . the outlook is promising…” In the next edition, from Oct. 28, The Student reported that “On Friday [Oct. 25], Meiklejohn announced the commencement of the regular college curriculum . . . The quarantine and sanitary rules, put into effect because of the influenza, are discontinued.”

The Student added that while there were still some cases of the disease in the town of Amherst, the Spanish Flu had been eradicated from campus, and the college could return to life as normal. This was the last edition of The Student that made mention of the pandemic. Within weeks, the end of World War I took over as the dominant news story, and the Spanish Flu outbreak was slowly forgotten.

Just over a century later, Amherst has once again found itself in the midst of a pandemic, and many of the debates that occurred on campus in 1918, including whether to send students home or to quarantine them on campus, have returned in 2020, yet the responses to these questions proved vastly different.  

Forcing students to vacate campus in 1918 would have sent dozens of students off to die in Europe, while the logistical complications of organizing mid-semester returns would have been too difficult for some students to overcome. 

Compared to 1918, arranging last-minute travel plans in today’s age is tricky but still possible, since we now have the benefits of modern air travel and the internet at our disposal. The ability to hold classes online has also made the ramifications of sending everyone home less ruinous than it would have been in 1918.

While the Spanish Flu outbreak on campus may have ended after a month and a half with only two weeks of cancelled classes, the COVID-19 situation clearly has a more lasting, longer-term impact. It’s interesting, too, to consider the ever-mobile nature of 2020, when it’s virtually impossible to isolate the campus from the rest of the town, state and country, something far more plausible in 1918 that presumably stalled its global spread. 

But many of the observations made by Dr. Phillips in 1918 still ring true today. COVID-19, like the Spanish Flu, is being spread by individuals who continue to go out into public, despite all the precautions. While many are doing a good job by adhering to the new quarantine restrictions, there is still a small number of people who are jeopardizing the rest by not following the rules. And the rules remain the same a century later: “Don’t Worry, Don’t Crowd, Wash Your Hands Before Eating, and Think of the Other Fellow.”