Spanish Influenza at College

By Greg Bailey, University Archivist, Texas A&M University

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In 1918 a worldwide influenza epidemic stuck that affected 500 million people. The exact origins of Spanish Flu are not now, with some evidence suggesting that it had begun as early as 1917. The sickness spread through Europe and affected the Allied and Neutral Powers, but because of censorship the full effect around most of Europe was not known. Spain, being a neutral country, had not censored the media and stories of the epidemic were heavily reported.  As a result, it appeared that the Spain was especially hard hit and the name “Spanish Flu” was born. The initial wave hit the United States in late 1917.

In September 1918 the second wave was in full swing in the United States with it being heavily reported among the Atlantic Coast cities.  By late September it was being reported that the flu had hit Brazos County and on the 30th of that month it was announced that A&M President William Bizzell had put the college in quarantine preventing the students and soldiers station there from leaving campus.  There were cases reported of the flu, also called grippe, in the county and on campus, with the idea of limiting exposure and also preventing the soldiers and students from leaving or returning to campus on night trains which might cause them to catch a cold that in turn could develop into grippe.  The flu rarely was the cause of death though, but rather the development of pneumonia after the flu had subsided. The weakened individual could not overcome the pneumonia.

The next day the first death on the campus was reported as F. J. Butschek died of pneumonia contacted after a bout of Spanish Influenza.  Doctors in Bryan downplayed the seriousness in town, saying the epidemic was well in hand and that there were only two serious cases at the college.

In a letter on October 4 to Board of Director and Bryan resident E.H. Astin, President Bizzell stated that there were 1000 cases of influenza on campus, and that the hospital was overtaxed and a barracks had to be converted into additional space.  He also reported that more doctors and nurses were needed, something he had seen to by acquiring the services of doctors from Bryan and nurses from around the state.

As the epidemic continued to spread, activities around the county were affected. In an attempt to stem the spread of the flu the closing of schools, churches, shuttering of business, and cancellation of social events like jitney dances and football games all were announced.  

President Bizzell had also been working with the government to gain better care for the soldiers training on campus. Word was received on October 10 that the federal government had authorized the construction of a hospital at College for federal soldiers. The same day a story ran on the front page of The Eagle titled “Deplorable College Conditions Condemned by Defense Council” claiming that the soldiers were receiving poor care and living in terrible condition in “Barracks Five”. Bryan Mayor John M. Lawrence also sent a telegram to the commanding officer of Fort Sam Houston calling for an investigation.  

The next day another story appeared in The Eagle tilted “Barracks Five” which recounted stories of Red Cross workers and local citizens who had visited Barracks Five and detailed what they had seen. Claims of negligent treatment included one soldier being left for dead, no pillows or sheets for the sick, and lack of food.  

The man in charge of the soldiers care was Captain John F. Gibson, M.C., who had been stationed at the College since late September as the lead surgeon. The same day as the “Barracks Five” story, word came that Captain Otto Ehlinger would be detailed to the college to assist.  Captain Ehlinger had served eight years as the college physician before being commissioned in the medical corps in August.

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On October 14th The Eagle printed Captain Gibson’s response to the claims of negligence and deplorable conditions in Barracks Five, where he refuted all charges made in the paper and that the report was exaggerated and largely false.  He further pointed out that only 13 soldiers had died so far from the outbreak, rather than the reported 20. In a letter two days later from to Mr. Astin, President Bizzell stated that condition in Barracks Five had become deplorable and that he had been urged to go to Washington to see what could be done, at which point he obliged and had became ill himself on his trip to the nation’s capital .  He also reported that the War Department had sent a medical inspector to College to investigate the problem, unfortunately that report has not been located at the time of writing of his piece. Interestingly enough, President Bizzell went on to echo Captain Gibson’s view of The Eagle article that it was “very inaccurate but did not overstate the general conditions.”

Conditions eventually improved on campus and in Bryan, just as Captain Gibson was being transferred to Camp Mabry in Austin.  By the end of October the epidemic had largely passed at College and around Brazos County. In the end the Spanish Flu epidemic claimed 25 lives at College, while 51 had been identified as dying around the rest of the county.  There are possibly another 10-20 additional deaths that couldn’t be confirmed as the death certificates simply stated “No Dr” under the cause of death section of their death certificates for those dying during October of 1918.

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