A look back: Flu Fighters

Students’ celebrations of the end of the Great War were cut short by the 1918 flu pandemic
Story by Mary Gallagher
School Nurse May Mead
School Nurse May Mead, along with assistant art teacher Dorothy Milne, above, helped take care of sick students who lived off campus.

Bellingham State Normal School students had a lot to look forward to in fall of 1918, with the end of the Great War in sight and hopes that they’d soon see the return of classmates who had fought in Europe.

But by October 1918, a deadly strain of influenza was hitting the Pacific Northwest. Local health authorities ordered Western’s campus closed Oct. 8 and canceled the remainder of fall quarter.

That week, the students’ Weekly Messenger newspaper declared that ‘Spanish Influenza’ is a very serious matter but very much a mystery to most of us,” and offered a list of prevention tips from the U.S. Army Surgeon General that sound familiar today—cover your cough, wash your hands, avoid crowds—and a few bits of advice that remain mysterious, such as chew your food and wear well-fitting shoes. (Meanwhile, a nearby notice admonishes “slackers” to show up in droves at a gathering to roll bandages for soldiers wounded in the war.)

“Avoid the ‘Flu’, Take a Good hike,” offered another story, with a cheerful description of “Dorm’ girls” and other students hiking a trail along Whatcom Creek: “The scramble through the woods, and over rocks and water was immensely enjoyed.”

After Armistice Day Nov. 11, state and local health authorities declared the pandemic threat had eased and reopened campus Nov. 18. Fall quarter resumed and students rushed back to campus, ending the so-called “flu vacation.”

“This terrible disease paid its visit to many of the Normal students,” according to an item on the Nov. 23, 1918, Messenger. “Some of the students, who were taken ill before they could reach their homes outside of town, were cared for by housemothers and outside assistance.”

Faculty members helped care for students in boarding houses and St. Luke’s Hospital, and the Dec. 15, 1918, edition of the Messenger was dotted with reports of students, alumni and faculty out sick as the disease peaked. A student named Nora Dorcey lost both her sister and mother to the flu within a week of each other, then her house burned down a month later.

Another student was Bellingham’s first 1918 flu death. Anne Ruth Harrison, 17, of Orcas Island died of pneumonia in a house on Cedar Street Oct. 13, 1918, after being ill for a week. The Weekly Messenger remembered her as a “scrupulously honest” young woman known to friends as “Nanny Hoots,” with a special talent for socializing, mathematics, and taking care of little kids.

“She was good, kind, capable and young, with high hopes and bright prospects for the future.”

School nurse May Mead, immortalized in this cartoon in the 1919 Klipsun yearbook, was one of several faculty and staff members who helped tend to ill students during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Assistant history teacher Nora Cummings cared for flu-stricken students at St. Luke’s Hospital near campus.

is editor of Window magazine