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From the Archives: the Spanish influenza

One of the most devastating epidemics in modern history swept across the United States during 1918-19, leaving a half million people dead, including three Elon students.

Even as the country emerges this spring from a virulent flu season, it was the Spanish influenza of nearly a century ago that crippled schools and universities in devastating fashion. Elon was no exception.

Several forces had combined by 1918 to make possible the national pandemic. Military camps and installations were among the earliest locations to see widespread illness as the thousands of men drafted for World War I reported for training in close quarters. In urban centers, crowded conditions in mass transit also helped the disease to flourish.

At the same time, a growing middle class afforded Americans more leisure time in such facilities as movie theaters, bowling alleys and skating rinks, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which maintains a website dedicated to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. A rapidly growing population in a nation where people were gathering in larger numbers than ever before turned the United States into a petri dish.

Elon’s semester schedule set it apart in its battle against the flu. Because the college was among the first in the state to open that fall, more medical attention was available from local physicians when the illness arrived in force. Administrators converted campus facilities into makeshift infirmaries, sending the sickest students to live with President William A. Harper, who remarked at the time: “We did not know what it was, until we were all sick.” The gym located in North Dorm was filled with cots for men, and the women used the Lincoln Infirmary located on the third floor of West Dormitory and the beds in the West and Ladies Hall dormitories. There wasn’t enough professional assistance available and students who didn’t catch the flu had to serve as temporary nurses.

Worth Bacon, a student at the time, would later write in the Winston-Salem Journal about his experience that autumn helping others who had fallen ill. “The influenza epidemic struck Elon College a heavy blow,” he recalled. “Those of us fortunate enough to escape the flu (and there were very few who did not contract the disease) were assigned to hospital duty. We nursed the sick for two hours and then we were off for four hours. This was an around-the-clock schedule. “I do not remember the number of deaths during the epidemic at Elon, but it must have been at least a dozen students died.”

Worth was incorrect. College records show three students—Modesto Lopez, Clarence Sechriest and Annie Floyd, whose scrapbook is housed in the university’s archives—who died from the flu. In his book Elon College: Its History and Traditions, the late Elon professor Durward T. Stokes concludes that “possibly, the scourge took the lives of one or two other victims,” but those were the only three he could identify. Little is known about the students. Lopez was one of Elon’s earliest international students, having arrived on campus from Spain via Cuba. He spoke no English at the time of his death. The 35-year-old was a relative unknown, according to his obituary in The Christian Sun, “but his ambition and efforts were worthy and commendable and his death sorely felt.” The Spanish Consul requested that Modesto be buried in the Elon College cemetery, today known as Magnolia Cemetery, next to the railroad tracks on South Campus.

Sechriest was a sophomore who, like Modesto, died in the home of President Harper. Little else is known about him, as many college records were destroyed less than five years later in the fire that burned down the Main Administration Building. Floyd died just off campus in the home of her sister, Thyra Swint, who was matron of the Young Men’s Club near where Alumni Gym now sits. The Alabama native, described as “a beautiful Christian character with high ideals and worthy ambitions” in her Christian Sun obituary, had been an Elon student for three years.

It took two weeks before college operations resembled anything close to normal. Though classes were never officially canceled, for decades to come, college leaders would know the Spanish flu episode as “the sorest affliction we have ever sustained.”

By Eric Townsend

Keren Rivas,
5/5/2015 1:50 PM