A College Responds to the Spanish ‘Flu Outbreak of 1918-19

Archaeologists – at least the ones in our archives – had a knack for using whatever came to hand for their own purposes. This often leads to the preservation of surprising nuggets of social history wedged in between the archaeological research, photographs and correspondence.

This week, a volunteer working on the lantern slide collection found a piece of postcard re-used as a section divider for maps of Asia in a lantern slide draw. The postcard had been sent to Professor John Myres’ home address on Banbury Road.

box 354001On the other side of the card was a summons to a College meeting to discuss ‘the question of inoculation against influenza’:

box 354002

In the autumn and winter of 1918-19, the influenza pandemic had led to unprecedented death rates. One of the cruelest aspects of the so-called ‘Spanish ‘flu’ was that it hit young adults particularly hard. The ‘flu died down through the spring and summer of 1919, but as winter approached, another wave of the ‘flu struck, causing widespread illness, though this time it was to be less deadly (Shanks and Brundy 2012).

There was very little that medicine could offer to counter the devastating effects of the ‘flu, but there were attempts to find and use inoculations against its lethal impact, as this little card testifies.

You would think, given ‘the question of innoculation’ was the purpose of the meeting, the dons of New College would have prioritized the matter, but in fact, as Jennifer Thorp, archivist at New College found out, the meeting on November 15th spent too much time discussing outstanding business from the previous meeting (on the 11th) to get around to ‘the question of inoculation’, which was instead discussed at yet another meeting on the 19th! Finally, at this meeting:

‘It was agreed to provide facilities at the beginning of the ensuing Lent Term for the inoculation of members of the college against influenza. The Junior Bursar was requested to make recommendations to a subsequent meeting as to the provision for nursing within the college in the event of an influenza epidemic’ (New Coll. Archives MIN/W&F 6, p. 295).’

Jennifer’s research in the archives suggests that little further action was taken, since the Junior Bursar was never called upon to present their recommendations at any subsequent meeting, and student numbers indicate that New College wasn’t badly affected by influenza. There were only 30 students in residence in the Autumn of 1918, when the ‘flu was at its most lethal – most of the College’s men and staff were still involved in the war effort. Numbers rocketed to 135 in the next term, as students were able to return to College and resume their studies.

The question still remains, however – what were the students to be inoculated with? An effective treatment for ‘flu wasn’t discovered until 1933.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to New College Archvist Jennifer Thorp for providing information on New College meetings and student numbers.

Bibliography

Killingray, D. and Phillips, H. (2003) The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919: New Perspectives Routledge 

Shanks GD, Brundage JF. Pathogenic responses among young adults during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2012 Feb [date cited]. http://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1802.102042

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About Archaeology Archives Administrator

Researchers in the archives of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Home of the Historic Environment Image Resource. Passionate about old photographs and fresh biscuits.
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