The 1918 influenza quarantine

Today the Gothic Gates of campus may appear to separate Yale from the rest of New Haven. In 1918, this barrier was taken to the extreme. That year, under fear of the influenza virus, the University placed itself under a virtual quarantine.

Although the wrought-iron gates could not keep the pandemic — the largest and most wide-spread in history — from spreading, the University isolated all students and faculty to minimize the health threat brewing in the city. Already, because of America’s simultaneous involvement in World War I, Yale had been transformed into a military training ground for the Army and Navy, with strict regulations governing daily life for civilians and soldiers alike. And with the flu and Yale’s subsequent lock-down thrown into the mix, the divide between Yale and the city became even more apparent.

Julie Irwin GRD ’10, a doctoral candidate in History of Medicine and Science, has researched the 1918 pandemic as a case study of Yale-New Haven relations. The military presence on campus largely impacted the University’s strategy in combating the onslaught of the disease, she said.

“Yale was really trying to train people for the military and trying to protect those people from getting sick,” Irwin explained. “But what does that say about the community and the disparities in health and wealth?”

On Oct. 4, 1918, the Yale News — which later became the Yale Daily News — reported on the University Emergency Council’s decisions regarding regulations in response to the pandemic. Members of the Yale community were not allowed to make contact with other civilians unless the participants obtained a special pass, which was restricted by the Council to “official assignments.” Visitors were banned from the military posts, and University secretary Anson Phelps Stokes canceled all on-campus public meetings.

Meanwhile, some individuals from the Yale community, such as Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, chair of Yale School of Public Health and a city public health official, made efforts to reach out into the community, which consisted largely of an immigrant population, Irwin said.

“They found it was pretty pervasive everywhere, [but] it turned out to be a little worse in the Italian communities, because they were in more crowded conditions,” she said. “He was extending Yale’s reach to the community but at the same time you have this segregation going on.”

But even these efforts could not stop the flu’s onslaught throughout the city surrounding Yale.

The flu came in two waves: one in October 1918 and the second in January 1919, Irwin said. At the time, New Haven was Connecticut’s largest city, with a population of 162,537 people.

By Oct. 20, New Haven had already reported 209 influenza-related deaths, but by that same year, only one Yale student had lost his life to the pandemic. And by the end of the year, Yale had lost three students, according to the 1918 Annual Report of the President of Yale University, Irwin said. New Haven experienced 796 deaths. And despite what was happening outside the University, Stokes declared that the pandemic had been defeated on Oct. 12, only two days after the University’s first student death.

“It looks as though the back of the epidemic, in so far as Yale is concerned, had been broken, thanks to the excellent precautions taken by the medical officers of the Army and Navy, and the care taken of patients at the Infirmary and the Cloister,” Stokes announced in the News.

Yale, like New Haven, designated additional buildings as makeshift hospitals to accommodate for the influx of patients. Although Yale had its medical resources supplemented by the military presence on campus, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Health John T. Black, had to urge its doctors and nurses to stay in the state and treat the ill, since many had been traveling northeast to fight the epidemic in Boston.

Frank Snowden, a professor of history of medicine, said that Yale, as a small community, was able to successfully protect itself by means of isolation.

“In 1918, the strategy was to cut Yale off from the city,” Snowden said. “The city-town relationship would have been configured differently because it would have involved the U.S. Army and government, a war situation.”

Snowden, who is on leave this semester but has taught Epidemics and Society in the West since 1600, suggests that the recurring history of pandemic epics of influenza indicates the possibility of another one in the future. In the twentieth century alone, the pandemic form of influenza reappeared in 1957-1958 and 1968-1969 — which raises questions as to how the University would respond to such an epidemic today.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seems to agree with Snowden. Along with the Centers for Disease Control, the department has prepared a “Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist” specifically for colleges and universities. The checklist delineates the importance of collaboration between the university and the local community, both in integrating and testing the emergency response.

University Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith could not be reached for comment to discuss the University’s epidemic response plan.

Nava Rafati ’11, who grew up in Israel where she said she was raised to be constantly prepared for any emergency, emphasized the links between Yale and New Haven that, in a present context, would render the University’s 1918 response obsolete.

“Our priorities have shifted — I think American society is generally becoming more conscious of other people,” Rafati said. “Yale is a huge part of New Haven — it shapes the city in a lot of ways — and I feel like we owe a lot to the residents of the city.”

Although the University’s 1918 response reflected the regimentation of military life, today’s reaction should reflect the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of everyday society, Rafati said.

Lanre Akintujoye ’09, one of the organizers of Yale’s upcoming Global Health Week, stressed the efforts that Yale has taken to further integrate itself into the broader New Haven community since 1918.

“Even though students joke that there is definitely a line between where Yale ends and New Haven begins … Yale’s response would have to take into mind that Yale is situated in New Haven,” he said.

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