Home > Departmental History at UND, Grand Forks Notes, North Dakotiana > The Flu, The University, and the Department of History

The Flu, The University, and the Department of History

We’ve recently been barraged by university communications regarding prospects of a serious outbreak of the H1N1 Swine Flu.  This is not the first time that the University of North Dakota has had to deal with an outbreak of the flu.  In 1918, UND endured a particularly tragic outbreak of flu as the campus transformed itself into a base for the Student Army Training Corps (SATC).  Similar to our current situation, the flu crisis was managed by a new university president, Thomas Kane, who had been inaugurated just a year earlier.  Unlike our current leader, Robert Kelley, however, Kane had had a controversial first few months in office including the botched handling of a student drinking case, a flip-flopping attitude toward the tense political situation in the state, and an inflammatory inaugural address that rankled the sensitivities of many longtime university faculty members including the irascible Orin G. Libby.

Louis Geiger’s The University of the Northern Plains provides the best summary of the flu’s decent on campus in October of 1918.  The university had just re-organized itself to take on the training of over  400 army cadets who greatly outnumbered the small body of regular students on campus.  The campus moved to a quarter system, Davis Hall, Budge Hall, the dinning hall of the Commons, and the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity house were turned over to military use as barracks and headquarters for the cadets and money was allocated for the construction of an Armory

Despite what would have appeared to be significant preparations for the arrival of these new students, the university was unprepared for the influenza epidemic when it struck campus in October.  By October 9th, the university had suspended classes and placed the entire campus under a quarantine.  Training and classes for the SATC abruptly stopped as growing numbers of the corp became ill and parts of Budge Hall and the Phi Delta Theta house were converted to make-shift hospitals to serve the increasing number of sick students.  The hospitals, however, lacked proper equipment, toiletries, and bedding making them poorly suited to care for the sick.  Moreover, the Grand Forks community, an important support network for the university, suffered at least as grievously as the university campus.  By mid-October Grand Forks reported over 3000 cases of the flu and on campus 320 of the 470 cadets were ill.  Tragically, 29 of these students would die and Geiger reports that no other university campus had a worse record (p. 298).  In contrast, the Agricultural College in Fargo had far fewer cases and deaths despite having a larger number of SATC students; the quick acting Dean of the Medical School, Harley E. French, took decisive measures to prevent the spread of the flu among campus women (who were organized and housed separately from the SATC).  One died, but far fewer were ill.

The upshot of the flu tragedy on the University of North Dakota’s campus was significant. Orin G. Libby, the noted historian, had served as the chair of the University’s War Committee and had worked alongside President Kane to bring to make the arrangements necessary to accommodate the SATC on campus.  Libby, whose feathers had been ruffled already by Kane’s impolitic speech at his inauguration, placed the blame for the tragic student deaths squarely on Kane’s shoulders.   In 1920, Libby joined a group of faculty members including John M. Gillette, perhaps the most well-regarded and influential member of the university faculty during the first half of the 20th century, to call for Kane’s removal.  Kane for his part rallied support from Vernon Squires (who would later write the first history of the university) and, perhaps significantly, Dean French of the Medical School.  The precise details of this conflict have been lost, but it attracted sufficient attention from various university stakeholders to compromise in a serious way both Kane’s and Libby’s ability to serve as campus leaders.  Libby and the Department of History, in particular, suffered at the hands of Kane as they clashed repeatedly throughout the early years of the 1920s (for more the Kane-Libby clashes see my three-part series: Politics and the Presidency at UND: Reflections on the Past at the Dawn of a New Era, part 1, part 2, part 3)

Stay healthy, UND!

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