1918 flu pandemic impacted campus, too

1918: American soldiers stricken with the Spanish Influenza are confined to a military medical ward in Kansas.



The coronavirus has significantly changed the lives of Detroit Mercy students – and most everyone across the globe – in the past couple weeks.

More than a century ago, in the year 1918, life was also in flux.

The Spanish Flu was sweeping the planet, killing millions and impacting life everywhere, including in Detroit.

An estimated 500 million worldwide were infected and 50 million died, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Varsity News began the very same year as the pandemic.

Several articles in the first year of the paper mentioned the flu.

One story noted a memorial for recent alumnus Edward J. Burns, who died after catching the flu at Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago a month after he enlisted.

“ ‘Flu’ Delays S.A.T.C. Plans” (another VN story) explained that the Student Army Training Corps was scheduled to receive cots from the army but would have to wait until after the flu epidemic was over.

“The unit will not be quarantined while the inoculations are given, but those least affected will continue on regular schedule,” it stated.

Every city dealt with the pandemic in its own way.

The University of Michigan has an extensive archive titled “Influenza Encyclopedia,” which details Detroit’s experiences.  

In this archive much is said about the people making many of the decisions, including controversial Detroit Health Commissioner Dr. James W. Inches, who at first disputed the value of wearing masks and limiting activities.

Inches was a major figure charged with keeping Detroit residents safe.

His approach, however, was to keep the masses calm for he feared hysteria would make matters worse.

An example of his approach: He told residents to stay calm and rest if they had symptoms.

However, as matters got worse, Inches had to take more extensive actions.

One of the biggest steps he took was preventing World War soldiers from entering Detroit due to the possibility of their bringing the flu back into the states.

Over time the state prevented theaters, churches, schools and most large gathering spaces from being open, much like today. The pandemic began in October and saw local cases being reported into February.

The University of Detroit was located in downtown Detroit in 1918.

The impact of the Spanish Flu can be seen in any local cemetery – on the grave markers of hundreds of local children who died in 1918 and 1919.