The Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 at UNC

Letter from parent J.L. Nelson
A parent asks to be notified by telegram if his son catches the flu (University of North Carolina Papers, #40005, University Archives).

In the fall of 1918, students were preparing for battle. In August, Congress had lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, and as part of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), students  drilled daily, anticipating the day that their numbers would be called. However, before they could be sent to fight in Europe, they found themselves fighting a deadly enemy on their own campus—influenza.

The first wave of the global “Spanish Flu” pandemic began in the spring, followed by a much deadlier second wave in the early fall. By September 1918, it had spread to North Carolina. Concerned parents wrote to university president Edward Kidder Graham, fearful for their children’s health.

Graham's response to a concerned parent
Graham’s response to a concerned parent (University of North Carolina Papers, #40005, University Archives).

The campus was quarantined in October, and second-year medical students and local nurses were recruited to work in the overflowing infirmary. Three students died in a span of less than two weeks, and on University Day, 1918, no public gathering was held. After a few weeks, the situation seemed to be improving. In an October 19th letter to a parent, President Graham noted that there were 30 students in the infirmary and 20 convalescing—significantly fewer than the nearly 130 hospitalized a week before.

However, just two days later President Graham himself fell ill. Within days, he developed pneumonia as a complication of influenza. As the campus grew concerned about his condition and hoped for his recovery, the SATC commander asked that students not disturb Graham by marching or performing drills near his house. After less than a week’s illness, Graham died.

Portrait of Edward Kidder Graham
A memorial to President Graham printed as a frontispiece to the Dec. 25, 1918 High School Journal(Edward Kidder Graham Papers, #00282, Southern Historical Collection).

The next day, all classes and military drills were cancelled, and students were asked to “demean themselves in a quiet manner” in respect for the president. On October 31, Dean Marvin Stacy was appointed chairman of the faculty and assumed leadership of the university. Over the next two months, the war ended, the SATC disbanded, and the health crisis began to wane. However, influenza remained a serious threat. In January, 1919, Stacy also died of pneumonia as a complication of influenza, just less than three months after the death of his predecessor by the same illness.

By the spring, the global pandemic was ending. Over the course of the epidemic on campus, over 500 were treated for influenza in the infirmary and seven died—students William Bunting, Larry Templeton, and Kenneth Scott; nurse Bessie Roper; President Graham; Mrs. W.J. Hannah, a mother who caught the disease while caring for her son; and Dean Stacy.