The Fall of 1918

To combat the Spanish flu epidemic, Notre Dame shut down classes, canceled football games and forbid student travel into South Bend.

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

“We have gone through serious experiences since my last letter to you. The influenza was almost the death of all human joy.”  —Letter from Notre Dame President Rev. John W. Cavanaugh to theologian Francisco Marín-Sola, August 26, 1919

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The first campus death that autumn was Robert “Bobby” Corrigan on October 13, 1918.

“On Sunday evening Bob Corrigan died from pneumonia and the boys of Carroll Hall lost a playfellow who will be sadly missed,” read the obituary in The Notre Dame Scholastic a few days later. Bobby Corrigan was one of the minims, young boys attending a boarding school on campus in that era.

Other deaths would follow.

As Notre Dame adapts to the spring 2020 shutdown of campus and shifts to online classes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a reminder of the deadly contagion that began to sweep the globe in 1918. It came to be known as the Spanish influenza epidemic and it killed large numbers of young adults, ages 20 to 40, in contrast to the ordinary flu that typically strikes infants and the elderly the hardest.

Flu and pneumonia outbreaks continued through 1919 and into the following year. The last cases of the Spanish flu were reported in early 1920. In total, the pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide — more than three times the death toll of World War I.  In the United States, about 28 percent of the population became infected with the flu and an estimated 500,000 to 675,000 people died.

In Indiana, the worst of the pandemic occurred in October 1918. During that month, South Bend’s newspapers printed long columns about local people who were struck ill or had just died of the influenza or pneumonia.

The Spanish flu circled the globe during the final months of World War I. It spread in part because of widespread troop movements to military training camps around the U.S., on ships to and from Europe, and across European battlefields. At the time, Notre Dame had a branch of the Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC), which allowed young men to receive military training while continuing their college classes.

The first cases in the U.S. were reported in early March 1918 in Haskell County, Kansas, and Fort Riley, Kansas, where young men were training for military service in World War I. By the end of March, more than 1,100 men on the base were ill. Then, according to Pandemic 1918, a book by the British science writer Catharine Arnold, the illness seemed to fade as quickly as it had arrived.

A second round of the flu started in August. It was more widespread and deadly, and often complicated by pneumonia. The Spanish flu struck Great Lakes Naval Training Station, 30 miles north of Chicago, on September 11. By the end of the first week, 2,600 sailors at the camp were ill.

The initial cases in the South Bend area were reported in September 1918. The first local death was a one-year-old boy in Mishawaka on September 27.

There was a belief that the unseasonably warm weather that autumn contributed to the persistence of the outbreak.

“The month of October was particularly pleasant. Had it been unpleasant, had it only turned cold, said many, it would have been more healthful,” the Rev. Arthur J. Hope CSC wrote in his book, Notre Dame: One Hundred Years, published in the 1940s. “As it was, Spanish Influenza was sweeping through the country. It was the opinion of some that the germ would have been killed by cold weather. But October was unusually balmy and warm. Students fell ill by the scores. Classes had to be abandoned.”

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On October 11, Dr. Emil G. Freyermuth, South Bend’s city health officer, issued an order forbidding all public gatherings until further notice, the South Bend News-Times reported. All schools, theaters, clubs and religious institutions were closed. Public funerals, meetings, dances and other events were canceled. The shutdown would continue until November 9.

The Indiana state board of health issued an order requiring that any home containing a patient with the flu had to be marked with a “QUARANTINE” sign. By the time of Freyermuth’s October order, there had been at least 6,000 cases of the flu in Indiana, according to news reports, and 88,000 new cases had been reported that week across the country.

South Bend streetcars remained running and restaurants weren’t required to close. The streetcars were ordered to operate with all windows open, in hopes of preventing the flu’s spread.

The Notre Dame Scholastic throughout that fall published news about alumni and relatives of faculty and Holy Cross priests who had died elsewhere of influenza or pneumonia.

Cavanaugh, Notre Dame’s president since 1905, sought to downplay the campus illnesses, not wanting to create a panic. He spoke to the student body during the annual Columbus Day celebration on October 14. “First he made it very plain there is no influenza whatever at Notre Dame. Then, for the protection of the University, he announced that permission to go to the city (of South Bend) cannot be had,” Scholastic reported.

On October 20 came the death of Sister M. Claudine, a nun and nurse who had been caring for students in the college infirmary. “Sister Claudine contracted pneumonia, which caused her death, in caring for the sick students. She will be prayerfully remembered by the faculty and students of the University,” Scholastic reported.

On October 23, Cavanaugh issued a letter to the campus community reporting the deaths of four students and the illnesses of at least 50 others, but still saying the outbreak wasn’t a major problem. In addition to Bobby Corrigan, the priest announced the deaths of students Lester Burrill, William Conway and George Guilfoyle. “In general, we have had very little evidence of the presence of the so-called Spanish Influenza,” he wrote. “This may be due to the fact that the Notre Dame boy, as a rule, is in exceptionally good shape physically.”

There were concerns that not all flu cases were being properly reported to the health department. On October 25, John Willett of the state board of health visited South Bend and interviewed 14 physicians. Based on those interviews, Willett declared an epidemic in South Bend, with at least 750 active flu cases. That was far more than the number of cases that had been reported to the city health office.

“Physicians privately tell of treating hundreds of cases, but reporting few,” a headline in the South Bend News-Times declared.

The Notre Dame football team — led by new head coach Knute Rockne and including star player George Gipp — canceled three games in October because of the ban on public gatherings. The 1918 team also included Hunk Anderson, who would serve as Notre Dame’s head coach for three years after Rockne’s untimely death, and Curly Lambeau, who would go on to found the Green Bay Packers in 1919. Gipp remained healthy during the Spanish flu outbreak, but died two years later of strep throat and pneumonia.

On October 19, the team from Great Lakes Naval Station arrived to play Rockne’s team at Cartier Field. The game was canceled because of the ban on public gatherings and the visitors were sent back to Chicago.

 
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There were advertisements in local newspapers touting remedies that claimed to combat the flu. Some urged people to use Vicks VapoRub at the first sign of a cold. Others advertised a popular patent medicine called Peruna, which was mostly alcohol and water.

A total of nearly 59,000 flu cases was reported in Indiana in October 1918, with St. Joseph County reporting at least 1,500 cases. By mid-November, flu cases were still being reported in South Bend, but they appeared to be milder.

At Notre Dame, classes resumed October 28 after a lapse of more than a week because of the epidemic and Indiana’s ban on gatherings, according to Scholastic. “This week marks, apparently, the end of influenza epidemic at Notre Dame,” the magazine reported November 2. “Distressing as this was for a time at the University, it was nothing here in its ravages as at other institutions. No new cases have been reported now for more than a week, and the isolation hospital is practically cleared.”

The epidemic continued to take lives across the country. Father Cavanaugh’s only sister died of pneumonia on November 5 at her home in Leetonia, Ohio. The priest was at her bedside.

Notre Dame resumed its football schedule in November, playing its final five games to finish the 1918 season 3-1-2.

On November 16, Notre Dame’s SATC cadets were permitted to leave campus to participate in a downtown South Bend parade to celebrate the World War I armistice, which had been declared November 11. An estimated 50,000 people participated in the gathering, according to newspaper reports.

By November 20, Indiana reported 3,386 deaths statewide from influenza and pneumonia in the previous month. Among the cities where deaths were most numerous were: Indianapolis, 379 deaths; South Bend, 152; Evansville, 120; Fort Wayne, 25. St. Joseph County as a whole reported 185 flu-related deaths.

The University had a student population of about 1,500 in fall 1918. Notre Dame shared in the international pain and sacrifice. “We had more than two hundred cases of the disease,” Cavanaugh wrote to his friend Francisco Marín-Sola the following summer, “and there were nine deaths among the students.”


Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.