TBT: The Spanish Flu

Author: Katharine Flanagan


We are currently facing the biggest disaster of this generation: a pandemic that’s killing thousands, infecting over a million and impacting even more. But the world has been through this before. Just over 100 years ago, from 1918 to 1920, the Spanish flu ravaged the world, causing millions of fatalities and a major disruption to normal life. Scholastic covered the impact that this pandemic had on the campus community, academics and athletics, predominantly during its height in South Bend in fall 1918. Although a century has passed, many of the same restrictions and recommendations are being implemented in today’s COVID-19 pandemic.

In an Oct. 19, 1918 issue of Scholastic, writers reported on an announcement made by then-president Father Cavanaugh. “For the protection of the University, he announced that permission to go to the city can not be had,” it read.

This restriction appears to have applied to the soldiers housed at Notre Dame as well. That same issue relayed the following orders, issued by Capt. Murray and bulletined by Lt. Young: “On account of the epidemic of Spanish influenza nobody will be permitted to leave the grounds until further notice, unless they have permission from their company officers.”

These orders, however, would mean little to the student body, as there was a ban on public gatherings in South Bend issued just days before. On Oct. 11, South Bend city health officer Dr. Emil Freyermuth prohibited all public gatherings, including schools, theaters, clubs, churches, funerals, meetings and dances as a preventative measure against the pandemic, according to a South Bend Tribune article.

Much like Dr. Freyermuth’s ban, on March 19, 2020, South Bend Mayor James Mueller issued a travel advisory banning all non-essential travel.

The Spanish flu pandemic also impacted academics. In the Nov. 2, 1918 issue, Scholastic reported that classes were canceled for a week “due to the epidemic of influenza, in face of which the State ordered all gatherings discontinued.”

In addition, the football team had to cancel three of their nine games due to the pandemic and played none during the month of October. Today, nearly all sporting events — collegiate and professional — have been canceled, a move reflective of what happened a century ago.

Reports of Notre Dame community members that either explicitly died from influenza or pneumonia — which was often a result of influenza — filled Scholastic’s obituaries section. Some deaths from pneumonia in the October and November obituaries include that of Sister M. Claudine, a “gentle and unselfish nurse” who fell ill caring for the sick; George Guilfoyle, a freshman who had been at Notre Dame for a mere three weeks; Robert Corrigan, a resident of Carroll Hall known for being “playful, mischievous, but gentle and considerate;” and Mrs. Roger M. Cavanaugh, sister to the president of the university.

After the closure of campus for a week, Scholastic reported “the end of the influenza epidemic at Notre Dame” and said that no new cases had been reported for more than a week, according to the Nov. 2, 1918 issue.

However, death was still on the mind of students. A poem entitled “She Was” was printed in the Nov. 7, 1918 issue of Scholastic, the last lines of which read:

“But she was a girl

With a crinoline curl

That kept dangling down from her head

And it’s sad though quite true

She contracted the ‘flu’

And she won’t smile again, ‘cause she’s dead.”