The Spanish Flu of 1918 at Elon: ‘We did not know what it was, until we were all sick.’

Archivist and University Librarian Randall Bowman recounts how the Spanish Flu pandemic impacted the Elon College campus in 1918, claiming the lives of three students.

The Coronavirus pandemic has created a scary situation for the world, and for Elon University. But it is important to remember this is not the first time Elon has faced such a crisis.

Influenza regulations listed in the local newspaper during the pandemic

While there have been more recent epidemic scares such as SARS and the Avian Flu, the last time the Elon community faced such an uncertain time was in the fall of 1918 when during the First World War, the Spanish Influenza pandemic created global terror.

The influenza pandemic in 1918 would sicken three out of every four Elon College students, and claim the lives of three of them. The college converted the building housing the gym into a sick ward, and President William A. Harper and his wife even opened up their home so the sickest could be cared for.

Even with the panic today’s COVID-19 outbreak is creating, it is hard to imagine the scale of the catastrophe that occurred in 1918 and 1919.  The world community was already reeling from what was then called “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars.”  Millions had been killed in the four-year old conflict on the battlefields of Europe and around the globe. The slaughter had begun in 1914 and had continued unabated.

Then from seemingly out of nowhere came an outbreak of the influenza virus, often referred to as “the Spanish Flu.”  The pandemic would see infected 500 million people around the world infected, with flu taking the lives of 50 to 100 million. It stands as the deadliest pandemic in modern history.

Female Elon students who volunteered for the SATC unit, in formation spelling out “SATC.” These students were called “The Soldierettes.”

The United States entered the World War in 1917, and in the summer of 1918 was finally able to deploy a sizeable army to Europe. American soldiers returning home after surviving the filth and carnage of the trenches of the Western Front undoubtably helped spread the virus on the American Homefront.

Both North Carolina and Elon College, as Elon University was known then, were impacted by the pandemic. The late University Historian George Troxler wrote in his 2013 book, “From a Grove of Oaks: The Story of Elon University,” that an estimated 550,000 people in the United States died during the epidemic, almost five times the 112,000 deaths in the United States armed services during World War I. Troxler noted that Elon was the first North Carolina college to open in the fall of 1918, and was among the earliest to be struck by the epidemic in late September.

Modesto Lopez tombstone
The tombstone of Modesto Lopez in Magnolia Cemetery. Lopez was one of three Elon students who died in the pandemic.

On the campus of Elon College that September, preparations were under way to begin the fall semester, but also for a unit of the Student Army Training Corp, or SATC, to begin operation on Elon’s campus. The SATC was similar to ROTC, but students enrolled in SATC were not guaranteed officer’s commissions; they simply trained to be soldiers in the U.S. Army while attending classes at colleges and universities. The campus began to take on the appearance of any army camp. An elaborate ceremony was being planned for the induction of enlistees into Elon’s SATC unit and was scheduled for Oct. 1.

Then calamity struck the campus.  President Harper, Elon’s fourth president, later said, “We did not know what it was, until we were all sick.”  Durward T. Stokes, author of ‘Elon College: Its History and Traditions,” writes:

Within a matter of days, almost of hours, the college was in the grip of an emergency that threatened far more destruction to the community than the war overseas. There was no time to send the students home, and besides, the epidemic was rapidly spreading over the entire nation. This left the college no choice but to care for its own. 

Within a short time, about 300 hundred of Elon’s 400 students were sickened; many were bedridden for a time.

Elon College responded to the crisis by swinging into action. The SATC induction ceremony was postponed. The Alumni Building, which housed the college gym, was turned into a ward, full of cots to house stricken male students. Students who were not sick nursed those that were ill, working for two hours and then resting for four, in a grueling, around-the-clock schedule. Sick female students were cared for the women’s dormitories, West and Ladies’, and the college infirmary overflowed. President Harper and his wife opened their own home to seven of the most serious cases.

Sadly, three Elon students on campus succumbed to the influenza virus.  Modesto Lopez, an international student from Cuba, died while being cared for at the president’s home. Lopez had been born in Spain, and because the Spanish government was unable to make arrangements for his body to be taken back to that country, he was buried in the Elon’s Magnolia Cemetery. Clarence E. Sechriest, another student being cared for at the Harper’s house, also died. A third student, Annie Floyd, also fell victim to the disease.

Annie Floyd, left, was one of three Elon students to succumb to the Spanish flu in 1918.

Due to the time period, and due to the strain the pandemic put on the country and state, very little help was available from outside the Elon community. A group of Roman Catholic nuns arrived and helped tend to the stricken all across campus; they were tending to Lopez when he died. A local doctor from Gibsonville, Dr. J. V. Dick, came to campus and tirelessly provided what little medical treatment could be provided to the sick.

For a few days, the entire campus was in the grip of this virus.  But gradually Elon recovered. Durward T. Stokes wrote:

No human beings could have endured the grueling pace these people were forced to keep for very long. Fortunately, within a relatively short time, the epidemic at the college began to subside, though its ravages continued elsewhere for weeks.  Although the faculty was not spared, none of them died.  Classes were never officially suspended at the college, though frequently one was automatically cancelled when no one was able to attend.  At the situation improved, the instructors and students regained their health, and within about two weeks after the epidemic began, the college schedule was beginning to operate smoothly again.

The SATC induction ceremony was finally held on Oct. 5, after which the members of the company underwent military training for several weeks and prepared to be sent overseas. But that never happened. On Nov. 11, 1918, Germany surrendered, and World War I came to an end.

In December, at the end of the semester, the members of the SATC company were discharged; some continued their studies at Elon, and others returned to their hometowns.