Credit: University Archives | Courtesy

The coronavirus has lead to unprecedented measures in Cal Poly’s history, causing the school to move online for an entire quarter. But there has been one other time Cal Poly has faced a pandemic. 

“[COVID-19] is beyond anything we’ve experienced since 1918 Spanish flu,” Armstrong told Mustang News in a former interview.

And he was right.

One-hundred and two years ago the Spanish influenza infected the world.

At first, it was ignored.

On Oct. 11, 1918, Cal Poly’s Kelvin club held a barbecue and served peanuts and candies, and the student paper said “the meeting was thoroughly enjoyed in spite of the overhanging specter of ‘Miss Flu.’” Freshman-sophomore basketball games were planned, and teams of students were formed on the weekends of October to work on the threshing crew.

About 10 days later people took notice.

A unanimously approved county ordinance Oct. 26, 1918 prohibited the appearance of any person in public unless they were wearing a mask over their nose and mouth at a penalty of $5 to $100 or 10 days in jail, according to the day’s edition of the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram. At that point, 100,000 cases of flu were present on the Pacific Coast, with 2,500 deaths and 60,000 infections in California alone, the Telegram reported. Schools in Marysville were converted to hospitals. Seattle paper mills closed down, resulting in a decrease in news production.

Still, Cal Poly remained open, according to the Nov. 27, 1918 edition of the student paper, the Polygram.

“It is doubtful if many members of the Polytechnic family realize how fortunate this school has been in that it has not been necessary for it to close,” the paper read. “In almost every town in California schools have been compelled to dismiss their students for periods ranging from two to six or even seven weeks. An enforced vacation is undesirable from every point of view. Several weeks of work added to the end of the term by no means compensate for the same number of weeks subtracted from the middle. When June comes, and with it the holidays, we shall be glad that we have no lost time to make up and that we stuck to our guns in October and November and helped to down the ‘flu.’”

The editor of the Polygram described the required masks as a nuisance. They wrote that the system to get students past the cadets guarding the entrance to the school was “troublesome to all,” but in the end it worked due to high student cooperation.

Campus administrators set a precedent for an extended break that year. Director Ryder cancelled the Thanksgiving day holiday and started Christmas break a week early. Under this new plan, students would not travel home during Thanksgiving and come back infected, and the three weeks of Christmas break allowed time for the outbreak to die out.

The Dec. 30 edition of the Telegram described a “treatment” for the influenza: Go to bed at the first symptoms — take a purgative, eat plenty of nourishing food, remain perfectly quiet and don’t worry,” adding later to always call the doctor. It also encouraged the application of hot wet towels over the throat, chest and back, followed by Vicks VapoRub and two layers of hot flannel cloths.

It was not enough.

School resumed Jan. 7, 1919, but within the week students were infected.

“After many weeks of fortunate immunity, the flu has at last taken up its abode among us,” the Jan. 15 Polygram read.

Students and teachers had been exposed at their homes during break. Some stayed back. Others developed symptoms after they returned. Eight on-campus residents were known to have it out of a total student population of 103, according to the  1918-1919 equivalent of a yearbook. Two teachers, Miss Jones and Miss Whiting, were dismissed two days early due to their cases.

Freshman James Nugent died Dec. 18, 1918, after contracting it on vacation in Pozo, south-west of Santa Margarita. Miss Mary K. Hartzell, science teacher and girls’ athletics coach, died around the same time.

Eventually, Director Ryder enforced five weeks of vacation and did not reopen Cal Poly until Feb. 17, 1919, the Feb. 26 Polygram reported.

The front page was filled with deaths.

Laura Adeline Ingham Ray died Jan. 21, 1919, at the Pacific Hospital after a long fight with influenza. She came to the dorms as a wife of a student two years prior.

Rush Taber, a former student, Polygram staffer, orchestra player and class president, died Jan. 15, 1919.

Armondo Rossi, a former student-athlete, died of influenza Jan. 15, 1919.

Frank Orrnatis, alumn, died Jan. 16, 1919. 

Later editions carried more bad news.

Catherine Shipsey, a graduate of the class of 1914, died in the San Luis Sanitarium May 11, 1919 after a three-week battle with influenza. She left her father, a trustee of the school, and three siblings, one of which was still a student, the Polygram read.

World-wide, 40-50 million people were killed according to the World Health Organization.

At Cal Poly, the measures they took were similar to today’s shelter in place regulations.

“During the Influenza epidemic everything was dull, as no trips could be taken and no meetings could be held,” the yearbook read.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *