Penn State History Lessons: The Spanish Flu & The 1918 Academic Year

As the coronavirus pandemic continues affecting the United States, it’s not uncommon to hear epidemiologists or historians compare it to the 1918 Spanish flu. Affecting more approximately a third of the world’s population at the height of World War I, the flu killed at least 50 million people worldwide.

Although today’s pandemic hasn’t come close to such a toll, the diseases’ many changes to everyday life, especially at Penn State, draw interesting parallels.

As a college student, it’s easy to complain about inconveniences such as online classes, social distancing, and canceled sporting events. However, Penn Staters back in 1918 had it much worse. They were experiencing the third-most deadly pandemic in history while the university militarized to help the United States win the war.

This deadly cocktail of two once-in-a-lifetime events occurring at the same time shook student life to the core. It’s hard to get a sense of student perspective during this time since the Penn State Collegian (Penn State’s student newspaper at the time) didn’t issue any copies between May 1918 and December 1918. The paper triumphantly returned on January 8, 1919, with a headline reading, “College Assumes Normal Aspect.”

Although there’s no newspaper record of how student life changed in response to World War I and the Spanish flu, it’s easy to see how Penn State was affected.

According to the Penn State University Park Campus History Collection, the war began affecting campus as early as 1916 but ramped up in 1917. That February, more than 2,300 male Penn State students sent telegrams to President Woodrow Wilson and Pennsylvania Governor Martin Brumbaugh, which claimed both the students’ support of the country’s entry into war and their willingness to offer personnel services.

This caused a snowball effect for Penn State. When the country declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, nearly 800 students enlisted in war-related employment. University President Edwin Sparks also offered to leverage the school’s agricultural powers for military use and formed an ROTC unit of more than 200 juniors and seniors in fall 1917.

But with the draft age still being 21, Penn State’s enrollment total dropped by only 10% during the 1917-1918 school year. In fact, the 1917 summer session hit record numbers of enrollment. Aside from general war-related fears, it was business as usual in Happy Valley. Fast forward to the fall of 1918, and it was a totally different story.

In August of 1918, Congress lowered the draft age to 18, and with that, all “normal” social and academic life at Penn Stat was erased. The SATC (Student Army Training Corps) required all physically qualified male college students to enlist, which amounted to around 1,600 Penn State undergrads. Campus was basically turned into a military base and required all undergrads to wear uniforms and adhere to military regulations.

old black and white photograph of Students in miltary formation
Photo: Penn State University Archives

Fraternity houses were converted to barracks and new military housing was erected on Beaver Field. Thankfully for students, this militarization was very brief and demobilization was all but finished by the time an armistice was signed on November 11. But this was far from the end of student struggles, as the Spanish flu affected extracurricular activities as well, including football.

By the time the dust settled, five games during the 1918 Penn State football season were canceled. However, the team was able to squeeze in four games in November. The Nittany Lions finished 1-2-1 during head coach Hugo Bezdek’s first season. The previous coach, Dick Harlow, resigned to enlist in the army.

The team’s only win came at Lehigh, which saw the Nittany Lions walk away with a resounding 7-6 victory. The team also suffered a 26-3 loss at home to Rutgers and a 28-6 loss to Pitt at Forbes Field. Not the best start for Bezdek!

Although only around 12 people in State College died due to the Spanish flu, the virus hit the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions especially hard. Football games against Washington and Jefferson, Dartmouth, Bucknell, and Cornell were all canceled due to the pandemic.

To cap off the fall 1918 “semester,” Penn State’s main engineering building completely burned to the ground on November 23. This catastrophe left campus without heat or power for a couple of days and resulted in the loss of thousands of dollars’ worth of laboratory equipment.

Photographs of the main Engineering Building ablaze, November 25, 1918, and its burned-out hulk.
Photo: Penn State University Archives

The war, pandemic, and loss of one of the school’s most important academic buildings resulted in a nervous breakdown by President Sparks in early 1919, prompting him to take a leave of absence for the remainder of the year. Perhaps his guidance of Penn State through such absurd and uncertain times is the reason he has a building named after him still on campus today.

Although students are struggling in their own right these days, there’s a lot to be learned from Penn Staters’ experiences during the Spanish flu’s heyday. After all, they persevered, overcame obstacles, and lived to tell the tale. There’s no doubt this generation’s Penn Staters will do the same.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected].

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