100 years ago, the Spanish Flu hit the Stanford campus

Spanish flu
Stanford students were required to wear masks as the Spanish Flu of 1918 struck campus. (Courtesy Stanford Special Collections and University Archives)

The current flu season has been called among the worst in recent memory. It has evoked comparisons to 100 years ago, when the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 killed an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population.

According to the Stanford Historical Society’s A Chronology of Stanford University and its Founders, in April 1918, those affected by the flu on campus were promptly isolated and hospitalized, resulting in a lower percentage of deaths than experienced elsewhere. Six out of 260 cases resulted in death. The flu affected greatly a campus already experiencing disruptions due to World War I.

Here is a description from the book:

World War I
Stanford had already been deeply impacted by World War I when the Spanish Flu of 1918 hit. (Courtesy Stanford Special Collections and University Archives)

“The flu first fills the Army infirmary at Camp Fremont, then Palo Alto’s Peninsula Hospital (built in 1910) and the campus Isolation Hospital (built in 1912 in the hills behind the campus, between Los Trancos Creek and Felt Lake.)”

In May 14, 1942, during World War II, Stanford Daily reporter Barbara Stevens wrote in a piece evoking campus memories of World War I. She wrote:

“…an epidemic of Spanish flu had reached such major proportions that impromptu hospitals had to be arranged for at the A.T.O., Delt, Fiji and Theta Chi fraternities. Students couldn’t leave campus, social gatherings were banned and…influenza masks were ordered to be worn in all classes.”

The Stanford Century, published by the Stanford Alumni Association in 1991 and written by alumna LINDA PETERSON, described the flu masks as “made of cheesecloth, looped over the years, they were sold for a dime a piece.”

Peterson wrote:

“Professors even lectured through the masks, as their students, similarly attired, struggled to make sense of the muffled sounds emanating from the front of the room.”

The book contains a quote from MARY SLOAN WILBUR of the Class of 1922. Wilbur wrote:

“When I first came to Stanford in the fall of 1918, most of the men were in the Army and the fraternities were closed. When the Spanish flu was raging that fall and winter, a number of the houses opened up to be used as infirmaries. It was mandatory that everyone should wear flu masks; you were fined if found without one. They were bought for ten or fifteen cents a piece and were made of cheesecloth with loops over the ears….It was both difficult and amusing to try to follow a professor who was lecturing through one.”

Stanford magazine, in an April 2017 feature about the book Letters Home from Stanford by alumna ALISON CARPENTER DAVIS, shared this quote from HOPE SNEDDEN, who wrote to her father on Oct. 24, 1918:

“I think the influenza is on the wane here. there are only 109 [Student Army Training Corps] men in the hospital. We have only had one girl and eight men die…Just tonight the campus has suddenly blossomed forth in white gauze masks. Ruling from headquarters. You have to tie them on below your eyes, and the girls look as if they had just escaped from a Turkish harem, or an advertisement for Fatima cigarettes. And you can’t imagine the ludicrous appearance of a tall S.A.T.C. man sneaking into the library with one of them on, with the look of a highwayman. And you can’t recognize your friends by their eyes. We’re waiting for tomorrow to see our professors try to lecture in them.”