Secret Philly

These ‘escape communities’ avoided death as Philly succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic

Bryn Mawr College and Princeton University were quarantine and social distancing early adopters.

Margaret Hart and Maisie Rush at Bryn Mawr College in September 1918

Margaret Hart and Maisie Rush at Bryn Mawr College in September 1918

U.S. National Archives
layla

By this point, you’ve probably heard about how Philadelphia flubbed and held a parade that helped fuel the 1918 influenza pandemic, which would go on to claim more than 600,000 American lives.

But have you heard about the nearby communities that picked up the ball Philly so gracelessly dropped?

A 2005 study by the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine looked at a handful of pockets across the country that successfully fended off the widest spread consequences of the 1918 flu using a concoction of social distancing and cleaning measures, not unlike the ones we’re seeing in the age of coronavirus.

Virtually no one died in these seven zones, and researchers named them “provisional escape communities.”

Two of them — Bryn Mawr College and Princeton University — are a stone’s throw from Philadelphia. Others were scattered across the country, including an institute in Pittsburgh, a sanitorium in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and the naval training station in Yerba Buena Island, Calif.

The 1918 pandemic lasted through 1919 and was first reported in military personnel, hitting during the tail end of World War I. Before it was all over, an estimated 500 million people were infected worldwide and at least 50 million died.

In Philly, as you may have read, upwards of 200,000 people flooded Broad Street for a September parade designed to sell war bonds. Compare that to the 40k who participate in the Broad Street Run, or the 65k who partied at Made in America in 2015.

That parade had #impact. Within three days, all of the city’s hospitals were filled. A week later, nearly 3,000 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or related complications. The disease would go on to kill close to 20k of the city’s 1.7 million residents — about 1.2% of the population.

Today, we get it. Philly’s decision to bring as many people together in one place during a virus outbreak was a poor one. As the COVID-19 coronavirus proliferates across the U.S., health officials are urging avoid repeating that scenario.

Here’s how two communities near Philadelphia adopted their own social distancing tactics to eschew death on their doorsteps a century ago.

Bryn Mawr College’s ‘quarantine’

Just a few miles from the Philadelphia border, on the Main Line in Montgomery County, is Bryn Mawr College, which was founded in 1885.

It’s considered an escape community because no one there — not faculty, staff or students — died of the flu that year. But only some of the actions taken by the college were right on target. Others fly in the face of what we now know about how viral diseases spread.

brynmawr-pandemic-order

Led by president M. Carey Thomas, the school’s response was an interesting case study in what researchers call non-pharmaceutical interventions, or NPI.

Faculty and staff were given free flu shots, and the vaccine was made available for widespread student use. One problem with that: Folks were using the wrong flu strain for the vaccine at the time. It had no effect against the 1918 H1N1 virus.

Students at the school also lent their hand to aid in the pandemic by cleaning an old inn that was converted into an emergency hospital.

Thomas also enforced travel restrictions. In short, those on campus weren’t allowed to leave, nor were off-campus visitors allowed to enter. Absolutely no one was to take public transportation.

So imagine how awkward it must’ve been when a newspaper, in a blurb titled “Found,” detailed the comings and goings of one Bryn Mawr freshman who apparently “had never heard of quarantine regulations.” Sis was located wandering around Wanamaker’s down in Philly buying furniture for her room. “When ignorance is bliss,” the blurb concluded.

Despite all these quarantine measures, however, college president Thomas did allow on-campus tennis tournaments, Liberty Loan rallies and hockey games with bleachers filled by attendees. Also, students were still allowed (and expected) to attend chapel.

Perhaps the most bizarre spectacle came in the form of an “anti-flu party,” where attendees gave handshakes with yardsticks and wore masks and gowns. Did they stay 6 feet apart, though? Who can say.

In the end, with all their kinda sorta quarantine measures, Bryn Mawr saw 110 flu cases out of a 465-student population. Though that was almost a quarter of the campus and consistent with other pandemic rates, the school is considered an escape community because no one died.

Princeton’s stunning anti-flu success

Less than an hour’s drive from Philadelphia is New Jersey’s Princeton University. During early 20th century wartime, more than 1,000 of the university’s 1,142 residents, all men, were in the Student Army or Student Naval Training Corps.

After the first flu case made its way to campus in early September, school officials jumped into action. Anyone presenting symptoms of the flu and an upper respiratory infection was placed in isolation.

When the university received 200 naval training corps members from the hard-hit Pelham Bay Park in New York, each man was subject to a health examination and treated with a medicinal nasal spray.

After October, all student trainees transferred into Princeton were sent through “a specially constructed disinfecting plant.”

Officials here also took social distancing seriously. Beds were moved so men could sleep at least 5 feet apart, proper separation was practiced during outdoor training whenever possible and there were strict restrictions on student off-campus movement.

On the problematic side, there were no restrictions of visiting parents — and visit they reportedly did.

The town of Princeton surrounding the university shut down businesses and public gathering to help curb the virus’ spread.

Like Philly is doing now, the town closed children’s schools. “Whether they want it or not, the pupils of the schools have a compulsory vacation for a period of time not now known,” a newspaper blurb titled “No School!” read.

And in stark contrast to Bryn Mawr’s myriad public gatherings held after quarantine, Princeton, even with its school of soldiers-in-training, canceled its Liberty Parade.

At final count, the 5,700-person town of Princeton had 300 flu cases, 50 cases of pneumonia and 15 flu-related deaths by mid-October.

At Princeton University there were 68 reported cases of influenza among the 1,142 university student army cadets and no student deaths. One professor died from pneumonia.

Want some more? Explore other Secret Philly stories.

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