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1918 Spanish Flu and its impact on Morgantown

History doesn’t repeat itself, Mark Twain supposedly said, but it often rhymes.

Jessica Eichlin gave a little laugh last week as she tried to conjure the exact wording of the above quote often attributed to the American humorist who was an oracle to the human condition.

“I’m definitely thinking a lot about that quote these days,” the WVU research librarian and public history graduate student said.

That’s because they turned WVU’s Delta Tau Delta fraternity house into an emergency hospital.

That’s because they shuttered every church, school and otherwise public venue across Morgantown.

That’s because they didn’t even want you leaving your house, if you could help it.

If you had to venture out, they said, you would be well-advised to cover your nose and mouth with a cloth, first.

And don’t even think about lifting that cloth to spit on the sidewalk, they said.

That salivatory (and most definitely germy) act was strictly prohibited.

Sound familiar?

City and health officials in Morgantown and Monongalia County were dug in with their counterparts at WVU to talk about all the above, and more, in the feverish fall of 1918.

One hundred and two years ago, the University City was under bacterial siege.

And what happened then, Eichlin said, is rhyming a lot with what’s happening now.

Getting it in writing

Eichlin, the reference supervisor at the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU, didn’t know she was tapping into what would be a clinical coincidence last spring.

It came with, “In the Throes of a Virulent Epicdemic: The 1918 Spanish Influenza in

That was the title of the scholarly paper she submitted for a class on local history in her degree program, and scholarly, it was.

It clocked in at nearly 2,700 words with 42 cited sources, and it told the story of the quakes and aftershocks of the Spanish flu here — with the help of accounts from The New Dominion, an earlier incarnation of this newspaper.

Eichlin started reconsidering every one of those words and sources after the coronavirus began rattling doorknobs on these shores.

“I was taken with all the parallels,” she said.

“Most of the institutional responses were the same. A lot of the news coverage was the same.”
The people who put together Proceedings and Papers, a journal of the Monongalia Historical Society, agreed.

Eichlin is lead author in the new annual, which is out now.

World war of pandemics

In October 1918, Morgantown recorded its first diagnosed cases of the Spanish influenza, which began its eclipse of death across the globe that August.

As many as 50 million worldwide would be felled by the strain, which was picking off in alarming numbers young and otherwise healthy soldiers who had marched off to fight in World War I.

Fifty million, and that was just the Spanish influenza, Eichlin said.

Another 50 million bodies were also lowered into graves, dead of pneumonia, which was a lethal combination of this strain.

Some 675,000 Americans were said to have died directly of the flu, and governors of U.S. states couldn’t go on the cable news outlets to lobby for ventilators.

Eichlin is still awed by the enormity of it.

“We’ll never know for sure how many actually died from Spanish influenza,” she said.

The killing maw that was World War I claimed 17 million soldiers, she said, but this was 50 million — with maybe that many more after that.

And people in Morgantown were starting to get sick.

Measured emergency

During the first week in October 1918, 150 students in WVU’s Student Army Corps program came down with Spanish influenza.

They were living in military-style barracks, which proved to be a pretty good incubator for the disease.

By Oct. 4, the American Red Cross mobilized on campus to convert the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house into an on-the-fly hospital for the additional flu sufferers sure to follow.

This was while the calls for a voluntary quarantine continued to go out — self-distancing, that is.

In the measured emergency response, the university canceled classes.

And Morgantown officials, as said, began shutting down the bustling college town of 10,000.

“Soda fountains,” Eichlin said. “They closed the soda fountains. Any communal place.”

Right on schedule, more people began presenting with flu symptoms.

Three hundred people, a mix of students and full-time city residents reported sick Oct. 9.

That number leapt to 543 two days later.

By Oct. 15, 786 confirmed diagnoses were chronicled.

Six deaths, including a 10-year-old girl and WVU professor who succumbed suddenly, were reported the following day.

Thirty-one WVU students died in the initial surge, and there were about 2,000 cases in Morgantown, which, relatively speaking, was significant for its population.

The Morgantown Board of Health had cards printed with one single word, “Influenza,” to be placed in the front windows of stricken households.

“Merely to warn callers,” officials told The New Dominion.

By the first week of November, it was done.

Still, there had been 118 funerals for 118 casualties of the Spanish influenza here.

As sad and wrenching as that had to be, Eichlin said, the bureaucracy still held its center.

That coordinated, measured response, she said, quelled what could have been a pandemic-within-a pandemic.

After all, she continued, all that illness and all that death happened in one turn of the calendar page, in one small town in north-central West Virginia.

“It could have been even more devastating,” Eichlin said.

Living history

These days, Eichlin, like a lot of people, is working from home while COVID-19 continues to write its own history.

Social distancing isn’t the best tack for a researcher who enjoys working shoulder-to-shoulder on genealogy projects and the like with library patrons.

When she isn’t working, she checks on family, via social media.

Her parents still live in her hometown of Harrisonburg, Va., and her siblings do, too.

A brother, quarantined from college, is getting reacquainted with his childhood bedroom.

At this writing, everyone remains virus-free.

“So far,” she said, riding out the rhyme. “I’m pretty lucky there.”

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