Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

The Influenza Epidemic at KU, 100 Years Ago: October 1918

October 16th, 2018

In the fall of 1918, at the height of American involvement in World War I, the United States War Department established the Students’ Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.). The University of Kansas, along with colleges and universities across the country, contracted with the government to make its facilities available for officer training. KU agreed to provide education, food and housing for up to 2,500 men.

Photograph of members of KU's S.A.T.C. in front of Strong Hall, 1918

Members of KU’s S.A.T.C. in front of the Administration Building (Strong Hall), 1918.
University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 29/0/G 1918 Prints:
Military Service and ROTC (Photos). Click image to enlarge.

Shortly after the first group of S.A.T.C. servicemen were sworn in on October 1st, the influenza epidemic that had been sweeping across the country and world arrived in Lawrence. In the S.A.T.C. barracks, where servicemen were living in very close quarters, the disease spread rapidly.

Photograph of KU S.A.T.C. barracks on Mississippi Street, 1918

KU S.A.T.C. barracks on Mississippi Street, 1918. Additional barracks were built between the
engineering buildings on the hill. Several of these temporary buildings were used as infirmaries
during the worst of the flu outbreak. University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/22/89 1918 Prints:
Campus: Buildings: S.A.T.C. Barracks (Photos). Click image to enlarge.

The severity of the outbreak on campus, both in the S.A.T.C. barracks and throughout the university community, lead to the October 8th cancellation of all University activities and the quarantine of all students. By the time the epidemic subsided and the university re-opened five weeks later, on November 11th, it was estimated that there had been as many as 1,000 cases of flu on campus. As many as 750 had been ill all at once. Twenty-two students and ten members of the S.A.T.C. had died. Student enrollment was approximately 4,000 at the time.

Image of the front page of the University Daily Kansan, October 8, 1918

Front page of the University Daily Kansan, October 8, 1918. The student newspaper
announced the first closure of the university due to influenza. In an attempt to contain
the virus, a quarantine forbidding students from leaving campus was also imposed.
KU extended the closure and remained under quarantine for five weeks, finally reopening on
November 11th. University Archives. Call Number: UA Ser 9/2/1. Click image to enlarge.

In an October 18th letter to his son Herbert, E.H.S. Bailey (KU Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Metallurgy, 1883-1933) describes efforts to treat influenza patients at the university.

Image of E.H.S. Bailey's letter to his son Herbert, October 18, 1918 Image of E.H.S. Bailey's letter to his son Herbert, October 18, 1918

E.H.S. Bailey’s letter to his son Herbert, October 18, 1918.
Call Number: PP 158. Click images to enlarge.

The letter reads in part:

We are certainly “in it” here now. The city is fairly free from Flu but there are occasional fatal cases. Dr. Jones has been quite sick for a week, but is resting a little better today, and taking a little food. He was worn out with too much medical work. At the Barracks Hospital, there have been 5 deaths, and everybody is as busy as he can be. Two of the women in my dept. are conducting the Dietary for 270 men in the hospital. New ones are constantly coming in and old patients are discharged. It is fine, the way in which everybody takes hold. We all send all the sheets, and pillows and pajamas that we can spare, and a lot of the college women are acting as red cross nurses.

The University did not start until Oct. 2, and then after 4 days a quarantine was declared, and now it has been extended until Oct. 28, so no Univ. classes until that time. The prompt action of all the state and Univ. authorities, has saved us a lot of danger, and many deaths, I feel sure.

These and other documents and photographs about the influenza epidemic at KU are currently on display in Spencer’s North Gallery. Be sure to stop by and explore them between now and the end of October!

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services