By Richard Lovegrove with Bruce Harper and Andrew Adkins

Fall 1918 at Virginia Tech was already a time of confusion and chaos.

Pandemic Perspectives

As communities across the globe confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of Virginia Tech students explored the history of another major outbreak.

The 1918 influenza epidemic served as the central research project for history Professor Thomas Ewing’s Topics in the History of Data in Social Context course.

When Ewing, an expert on the history of epidemics, selected the research project in the fall of 2019, he didn’t anticipate the themes of the course would dominate daily life just a few months later.

Following Virginia Tech’s transition to online learning in March, students in Ewing’s class continued to pore over news articles and other data related to the 1918 outbreak. The class also collaborated with the National Library of Medicine on a virtual symposium based on the research.

The program, “Reporting, Recording, and Remembering the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” debuted on April 29, and was made possible through the National Library of Medicine’s formal partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities to collaborate on research, education, and career initiatives. This partnership also resulted in a summer seminar for K-12 teachers and a workshop and book on viral networks.

The spring semester history class focused on three themes that directly connected the historical lessons of 1918 to the present challenges of COVID-19: how newspapers reported on the epidemic during the most severe weeks; the effect of social distancing policies implemented in cities and states; and how communities recovered from the worst effects of the epidemic.

The students found that like present-day leaders, health officials and state governments encouraged citizens to practice social distancing and take other precautionary measures during the 1918 event. Governments closed schools, churches, and other venues to prevent large gatherings. Many cities encouraged residents to wear personal protective equipment. Some cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, forced residents to wear masks by law.

According to Ewing, statistics from the 1918 epidemic were used to help guide public policy recommendations in 2020.

“The predictions about the number of cases and deaths, the potential for flattening the curve, and the extent of the epidemic all use data from the 1918 pandemic to inform today’s computational analyses,” Ewing said.

Also, the 1918 outbreak provided important lessons about taking appropriate public health measures, relying on expert guidance on the potential impact of a disease outbreak, and understanding the uncertainty of predicting the scope and severity of an epidemic, said Ewing.

“In 1918, public health officials warned of the potential impact of a widespread disease outbreak, yet they also underestimated how many people would fall ill and the total number of deaths,” said Ewing. “In 2020, Americans received similarly inconsistent messages, as the warnings of public health experts about the need for urgent and strict measures were undercut by other officials proclaiming that the threat was exaggerated and the measures were not needed.”

In contrast to 1918, however, the voices of those urging alarm in 2020 were heeded more quickly, leading to officials implementing measures on a wider and more complete scale, Ewing noted.

With World War I raging in Europe, the War Department had turned the Blacksburg campus into a Students’ Army Training Corps site. Prospective students—some of whom were underage or not academically prepared—came and went throughout September amid mass confusion about who would be eligible to attend. Battles raged over what would be taught, ultimately resulting in all of VPI’s four-year courses of study being ditched in favor of two-year courses.

On Oct. 1, 1918, according to the 1919 Bugle, more than 600 students wearing khaki and olive drab instead of the usual blue and gray were finally sworn in.

But just when the environment seemed to be settling into a positive routine, a new threat emerged in Blacksburg, creating even more chaos.

“Just as the confused turmoil of September was fading into memory and instruction in the new program was getting under way, influenza hit the campus and spread like wildfire,” according to Lyle Kinnear’s “The First 100 Years: A history of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.”

All instruction except outdoor drills was suspended. The Field House (seen in the photo above) was converted into a hospital, nurses recruited, and physically able students called into service as orderlies. At one time there were more than 200 confirmed cases on campus.

According to Professor Tom Ewing, who has received National Endowment for the Humanities funding to run workshops on the 1918 pandemic and taught a data course on the topic this spring while all Tech instruction was online, the number of students who died is unclear, but it was between five and 10. “If you think about 600 or so students, 10 is a lot,” he said. Worldwide, as many as 50 million died, 650,000 of them in the U.S.

The first VPI death was reported by the Roanoke World News on Oct. 9: 18-year-old Anthony V. Clarkson, of Claremont, Virginia. The Oct. 19 edition of the paper reported that “authorities have the situation well in hand,” but also said, “the nurses who are attending the Virginia Polytechnic Institute cadets in Blacksburg are very busy. … The work is of such a serious nature that they expect to be there some time.”

The historic documents also demonstrate an early commitment to outreach education, especially through the network of educators and experts now known as Virginia Cooperative Extension.

During the epidemic of 1918, Extension agents across the state employed innovative strategies to serve their constituents. The Alexandria Gazette reported, “Substantial aid came to the State Board of Health Sunday when Miss Ella Agnew, chief of the home economics division of the extension work of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, tendered the use of her county agents, many of whom have had experience in nursing.” Agnew was the first female demonstration agent in the country and the namesake of Virginia Tech’s Agnew Hall.

Ella Agnew, Mrs. Mary Moore Davis, Maude Wallace

Ella Agnew, Mrs. Mary Moore Davis, Maude Wallace

The Staunton News Leader also said that Jesse M. Jones, director of Extension work in Virginia, told agents, “Serve your people to the best of your ability in the present epidemic,” including opening soup kitchens for temporary hospitals and clinics. According to the paper, “In many of the counties there is an appalling lack of doctors and nurses, and the agents are being called upon to take their places. … In counties and towns where there are no hospitals, the agents will go from house to house helping any and every way they can.”

Some agents went to great lengths. The Nov. 20, 1918, edition of the Big Stone Gap Post, reported that “one young woman agent left her car at the foot of the mountain and walked four miles to the home, carrying a basket laden with food and such medicine as she could secure in the village where she has her office. … It is no exaggeration to say that the death rate would have been much higher but for the work of the agents.”

At VPI, students finally returned to class on Nov. 3, only to be disrupted again by a “false armistice” on Nov. 7, which “created an emotional orgy which dulled the reception of the real armistice four days later,” according to Kinnear. Interest in studying waned even further when rumors of impending demobilization swept the campus, followed by an exodus of the “boy soldiers” between Dec. 5 and 12.

Faculty members gamely continued offering classes through the end of the semester, but in late December gave it up and decided to start the semester all over again Dec. 31, dividing the year into three two-month terms.

VPI Hospital

The 1918 Bugle featured this photo of the Hospital (now part of Henderson Hall) and the staff, which proved inadequate to deal with the flu outbreak.