We’ve Been Here Before: the 1918 Pandemic
Fifteen years ago, Rachel Berzon’08 was a sophomore majoring in history and taking Emerging Infectious Diseases with Professor of Biology Marion Field Fass. The class proved the perfect place to bring her interests in science and history together, so she dove into researching Beloit’s experience during the 1918-19 pandemic.
Today, her 2006 biology paper offers fascinating insight into that earlier, but all-too-familiar crisis, and reminds us that human behavior has always played a critical role in fighting infectious diseases.
Berzon’s work also foreshadowed her future career in public health. She recently completed the dual physician assistant and Master of Public Health degree program at George Washington University, and joined the staff of Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va.
As the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, she reflected on her earlier research about Beloit in 1918. “The college implemented a voluntary quarantine from early October to early November 1918, which was successful in preventing deaths because many on campus took it seriously,” she said.
Like today’s students, who helped establish safe social behaviors and promoted them to the student body, the 1918 students stayed in check through the timeless power of peer pressure and a dedication to the common good.
And it worked. Looking at 1918, Berzon wrote that, “In pandemic terms only a handful became infected, and the mortality rate was in the single digits; Beloit College emerged from the pandemic unscathed.”
Berzon’s paper gives context to Beloit’s 1918 situation. The college was facing the worst of the pandemic while navigating multiple crises: World War I, serious financial problems, and additional density from temporarily housing as many as 1,400 Student Army Training Corps wartime personnel.
The pandemic reached Beloit in October 1918 during the second and largest of three waves. The college responded quickly with emergency measures, checking all students for symptoms, moving commuter students into campus housing, and making sure SATC leaders supported enforcing a strict quarantine among student soldiers.
The pressure was on to create a campus bubble.
Students wielded their pens to urge conformity. Berzon includes a revealing passage from the 1918 Round Table: “It has been rumored that some of our number have been so far negligent of their responsibility to society as to break quarantine…we have no tangible proof of this charge [but]…if you are bent upon suicide, please choose a method that will not turn it into murder.”
The Beloit Alumnus magazine reported five influenza-related deaths that year, all among the SATC student-soldiers.
Berzon’s research revealed correspondence from College President Melvin Brannon, who wrote years later that “No other institution in the United States had any comparable record with influenza. The government reported that Beloit College was the ‘Blue Ribbon College’ in the U.S.A. in this scourge.”