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So said President of the College Maud S. Mandel in her March email announcing to all students, faculty, staff, alums and community members that the College would be moving to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She’s not the first person to use the word. In email greetings, Zoom sign-offs and casual conversation, it’s common to hear such terms: unprecedented, exceptional, remarkable, astonishing. For nearly everyone living through the pandemic, it is those things and more.
But just over a century ago, the nation was trapped in the grip of another catastrophe: the 1918 influenza pandemic, also commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, coupled with the last year of World War I.
Like the coronavirus, the 1918 flu arrived from overseas but still hit the U.S. hard. And like the coronavirus, it forced a reckoning at the College: How can education continue under conditions of pandemic and quarantine, not to mention world war?
Answering such a question is more difficult than it may appear. Like everything from the era, the College’s records on the pandemic were originally paperbound, and many remain that way, trapped in archives rendered inaccessible by the current pandemic. Other evidence has apparently disappeared sometime in the past 100 years; the Williamstown Board of Health’s records from 1918 and 1919, for example, seem to have been lost to time. Any personal accounts, of course, have to be in writing, since no one who might have experienced life at the College during that era remains alive.
Other unusual gaps exist, such as a pause in the Record’s publication in fall 1918, replaced by the more militarily focused Camp and Campus, which has not been digitized. No recounting of the 1918 pandemic told under the constraints of the 2020 one can be fully complete; the present always finds ways to intrude on the past.
A fuller story, however can be pieced together from the Record, Camp and Campus, the Gulielmensian, the North Adams Transcript, town medical records, letters to the president of the College and a history thesis from 2006. It includes guards at the entrances to Williamstown, a graduating class of 19 men and students receiving degrees after only six semesters.
It is a story of a College hobbled by war, restricted by quarantine and concerned for its future, but still unerringly confident in the ability of its patriotic men to make it through.
"The future looks black indeed"
The Williams of 1917 was a drastically different place. Total undergraduate enrollment hovered around 500, and students came almost exclusively from the eastern United States. The pages of the Record were mostly devoted to sports victories and fraternity hijinks. Women would not be allowed admission until over half a century later, and most graduating classes were overwhelmingly white and wealthy— in Director of Libraries Jonathan Miller’s words, it was a “gentleman’s school,” intended for the sons of the privileged to study in the secluded peace of the Berkshires.
But when the U.S. entered World War I on April 6, 1917, those same “gentleman scholars” leapt at the chance to fight. Miller, who had himself been researching the 1918 influenza outbreak before COVID-19 hit, said that the atmosphere on campus during that era was one of patriotism and militancy.
“Unlike the 1970 experience with Vietnam, all these students were really gung ho to get involved in the war,” Miller said. “They were enlisting, they were volunteering, they were trying to get trained. There was a real sense of wanting to get in on the action.”
According to the April 9, 1917, issue of the Record, 57 undergraduates immediately left or intended to leave to fight, while another 281 had “entered the courses in Military Arts.” That summer, a military training camp was established on campus, commanded by Major-General William Pew and hosting 260 trainees.
When the College returned to its normal academic schedule in the fall of 1917, it was already a greatly changed place. The Sept. 22, 1917, issue of the Record reported that undergraduate enrollment had fallen by nearly a quarter to 412; that same issue of the Record announced the departure of four of its own board members to the war effort.
Professors as well as students deployed to fight in the war. Meanwhile, Harry Garfield, Class of 1885 and president of the College from 1908 to 1934, left for Washington D.C. to serve as chairman of the U.S. commission to fix the price of wheat and later as the Federal Fuel Administrator.
Editorials in the Record — one of the few remaining ways to encounter student voices from the time — were similarly preoccupied with the war. An editorial published on April 7, 1917, one day after the U.S. entered the war, chronicled how “the recent act of Congress [to declare war] has naturally placed military considerations uppermost in the minds of all undergraduates.”
The editorial then eerily foreshadowed the outbreak of influenza, less than a year later. “The resulting demoralization and mental strain must of necessity interfere with our curriculum work,” it read, “but let us seek to reduce this confusion to a minimum. Infection of this sort is dangerously contagious, and its spread would only increase the confusion which already exists.”
As the 1917-1918 academic year progressed, students behaved as though the College was on the front lines. The Record reported on March 4, 1918, that “six days in the week, almost every undergraduate drilled eagerly in the elementary and monotonous phases of military training, without a rifle, at first without even a uniform.” With dropping enrollment, graduation that spring was a stunted affair; students were given the option to finish classes two weeks early in order to attend officer training camp, and commencement featured only 19 graduates.
“Williams is facing a crisis which bids fair to be the most serious in the one hundred and twenty-three years of her history,” stated a Record editorial from May 9, 1918. “With her enrollment, the smallest of several decades, growing smaller every day, with the upper classes almost decimated, the future looks black indeed. Only unswerving loyalty, untiring labor, increasing efforts, on the part of the alumni, will serve to tide her through her period of peril.”
Another editorial, from May 31, captured many students’ fear of whether the College would even continue to function. “With the prospect of a three-months vacation,” the editorial read, “comes naturally the question of returning to College next year.”
"The government will take over the college"
Some students did return to Williamstown in the fall, but for most of them, campus had become a military training camp rather than a college. As it had the year before, the U.S. military used the campus as a training camp over the summer. However, instead of the College returning to normal for the fall, the military stayed.
Williams was one of hundreds of colleges that combined study with military training in the fall of 1918 as more and more soldiers shipped off overseas to fight in the war. Among those who arrived in September 1918 were not just traditional students, but also members of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), a program that trained draft-eligible young men for specialized work in the army. Admission was selective; colleges maintained their admission standards, requiring students to have a high school diploma, certifications and examinations.
As one letter in the North Adams Transcript wrote in September, “the government will take over the college.” Weston Field became a site for drill work training, while Cole Field turned into a makeshift trench for grenade and rifle practice, and dorms and fraternity houses transformed into barracks. The football team still practiced, but was forbidden from traveling far to games that would require extended stays and interruptions to training. With few regular students on campus, the Record stopped printing, replaced instead by Camp and Campus, which served the largely military population. And, since the College was considered a military institution, a federal law went into place forbidding the sale of alcohol within five miles of campus.
“The whole demeanor of the College changed,” Miller said, based on his research into Camp and Campus. “People walked around in uniform, they saluted each other, all of the above.”
While around 25 men continued their regular academic progression at the College that semester, the few hundred others who lived on campus were members of the SATC. They received free tuition and room and board in exchange for automatically enlisting in the army, and they were promised the opportunity to become a candidate for a bachelor's degree at the College whenever the war ended.
At the SATC camp, there were no divisions among freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, only divisions by military rank. And, while classes still took place, the curriculum changed to include courses like map-making and military law, all centered around preparation for military service.
When the SATC men arrived on campus in mid-September, they expected to play football against other nearby teams and spend their military-issued stipend shopping on Spring Street. However, with the flu of 1918 quickly spreading throughout the U.S., these plans were disrupted.
“The quietest Sunday that Williamstown has known for some time”
As the College was undergoing this transformation into a military camp, the world was beginning to experience a deadly outbreak of influenza, one that ultimately infected hundreds of millions and killed tens of millions worldwide.
The source of the virus remains unknown, but the first wave of the outbreak worldwide began in the spring of 1918. Massachusetts had its first recorded cases when several sailors reported coming down with the flu on Aug. 27, 1918, an early harbinger of what would soon be the virus’ second wave.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Massachusetts quickly became “ground-zero” for the pandemic, with 45,000 deaths between Sept. 1, 1918 and Jan. 16, 1919 — by far the deadliest stretch of the flu, both stateside and worldwide. In September 1918, The New York Times called Massachusetts “the centre of the influenza epidemic in the East.”
Richard Sosa '06, whose thesis in history at the College focused on the social impacts of the 1918 epidemic, said that the flu commanded the nation’s full attention at its peak in fall 1918. “If you look at any issue of The New York Times for about two months during that period, it’s the lead story, front page everyday,” he said. “It was pretty much the way that we are thinking of COVID-19 now.”
As the flu spread throughout Massachusetts, officials in Williamstown quickly realized they needed to act. At the end of September, the town board of health banned public gatherings and closed schools, churches, theaters and libraries in an attempt to prevent the spread of the flu. The Williamstown library sent out a notice asking everyone to return books until further notice, and one Transcript article noted an increased demand for masks. The army forbade SATC members from entering any off-campus buildings and canceled upcoming football games.
“Yesterday was the quietest Sunday that Williamstown has known for some time,” a Transcript article titled “Town Very Quiet” reported on Sept. 30. “Armed guards are posted on Spring street to enforce the regulations safe guarding the S. A. T. C. from this disease.”
The SATC men were also prohibited from sending their laundry out, which was newsworthy, according to Miller. “I mean, this rich gentlemen’s school, I doubt if they were really doing their laundry,” he said. “There is also a mention that all the mail in the College was delivered to the infirmary, where it was fumigated before it was then delivered on the campus.”
On Oct. 5, the Transcript reported 48 cases of the flu in Williamstown. Later that week, the town went into quarantine. The town stationed guards on Route 2 and Route 7; only those with a special card could enter and exit.
“The Williamstown Board of Health is convinced that it is a danger to the community to have free intercourse between Williamstown, where all gatherings are prohibited and a place where gatherings are permitted,” town officials wrote regarding Williamstown and North Adams in a notice in the Transcript. “The Board of Health will issue permits to such persons as they judge should be allowed to travel between these two places on account of business or necessity. All others are forbidden to cross the line.”
Under quarantine, cases of the flu decreased throughout October, with the town lifting its ban on churches and schools on Oct. 31. The library and theater reopened in the following week, and the College’s football team managed to play two games against Wesleyan and Amherst.
On Nov. 11, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies, ending the war. The following day, less than two weeks after the end of quarantine, Williamstown hosted a parade to celebrate.
According to the CDC, the end of the war sparked a reemergence of flu cases as soldiers returned home and citizens celebrated. Williamstown saw an increase in cases throughout December and decided once again to close its schools, libraries, churches and theaters in the middle of the month. The town postponed its Christmas festivities before removing the ban during the last week of December.
The country experienced a third and final wave of the flu epidemic in the spring of 1919, but Williamstown did not need to take such severe prevention measures as it had in the fall. A few church services and public meetings were canceled and grade-schools briefly closed, but by the end of the spring, the epidemic was finally on the decline.
No records currently accessible mention any flu-related fatalities at the College. On campus, the Transcript did report a handful of cases of the flu among SATC men in mid-October, and again in mid-December of 1918. Records from the College infirmary for the 1918-1919 academic year ultimately reported 16 total cases of influenza; another undated report from the infirmary reported 28 cases.
However, with many students fighting in the war, the epidemic did leave its mark on the College community off-campus.
The 1920 Gulielmensian, which devoted dozens of pages to an “In Memoriam” section, wrote that Robert Stats, Class of 1914, had died of influenza at a military camp in Georgia. An issue of Camp and Campus from November 1918 wrote that the daughter of Dr. A. I. Miller, Class of 1881, had died of complications from the flu. It is quite possible that other College community members were affected in ways not reflected in the existing and accessible records.
With almost 1,800 students and alums in the military, much of the College community’s interaction with the flu in 1918 likely took place overseas in the trenches, rather than on campus. Although young adults were one of the populations most vulnerable to the flu in 1918, military censorship and limited records obscure a complete picture of the flu’s effect on Williams men involved in the war.
Recalling his thesis work, Sosa questioned the reliability of flu statistics coming from the armed forces. “The reason that you don’t see [mentions of the flu] in publications that are directly related to defense or to other military things is because the US had a really robust system of military censorship, which is why it’s not widely reported from the front lines,” Sosa said. “My guess is you wouldn’t find a lot of cases reported even domestically in places like army camps, places like defense production.”
Worldwide, the outbreak took place in three waves — spring 1918, fall 1918, and fall 1919 — but the College and Massachusetts more broadly were most affected by the second wave. 1.2 percent of the state’s population ultimately died from the disease, approximately double the national rate; due to both the war and the epidemic, 1918 was the only year in the 20th century during which the U.S. reported a population loss.
Still, with all its town closures, Williamstown managed to avoid the worst of the epidemic. “Williamstown has suffered with the rest,” the Transcript wrote in January of 1919. “Fortunately not so heavily as many. We feel that this is largely owing to the care and precautions taken in the way of quarantine, etc.”
Pew, in a letter to Garfield from 1918, offered a more questionable explanation. Referring to the students on campus at the time, Pew said that “there was not enough fat in the whole bunch to fry a doughnut… I have a fairly strong conviction that their superb physical condition is responsible for their immunity from influenza.”
“The same college they knew in the ancient days”
Once the SATC disbanded in mid-December, the College quickly started making plans to return to classes as usual. The College held entrance exams at the end of the month, and the new term began on Jan. 2, 1919.
On top of the front page of its first issue in 1919, the Record explained its absence. “Last fall for the first time since it was founded the Record suspended publication,” the editors wrote. “There wasn’t any Record because there wasn’t any college. Williams went to war in a body and the Record belonged to peace times.”
While the war still hung over the College, with plans made for memorials and marches to honor those who served, life quickly began to return to normal. Rules regarding athletics were bent to accommodate first-years and those who had transferred as part of the SATC and extracurriculars started up again.
The new student body consisted of a mix of former SATC soldiers who chose to stay at the College, the small group of students who had continued their normal studies the prior semester and men trickling back from overseas throughout the spring.
Given the academic discontinuity brought by the war, the trustees made a variety of exceptions for students returning from military service. Any students who fulfilled curricular requirements, completed their senior fall semester before enlisting and received an honorable discharge from the army would receive their regular bachelor’s degree for their seven semesters. Meanwhile, any student who completed six semesters, entered the military and received an honorable discharge would receive an honorary bachelor’s degree.
The first Record editorial from 1919 provides a window into some students’ emotions upon returning to Williamstown after a turbulent year.
“Axiomatically, we never realize what we have until we have it no longer; which is to say that Williams undergraduates have not appreciated their College life until they have found it suddenly snatched away from them,” the editors wrote. “Williamstown never looked so desirable to them as when they were living by the bugle, with, apparently, little prospect of returning to their former habitat.”
“By the same token, then,” the editors continued, “they have appreciated more than ever the privilege of getting back to College — and finding it rapidly becoming the same College they knew in the ancient days of January, 1917.”
Or, one day, the ancient days of January, 2020.
Article design by Aki Takigawa. Reported by Rebecca Tauber and Joey Fox. Images from the Williams College Archives.