The Spanish flu is coming back to Alma, but not in the form of the annual bouts of the Alma Plague. A First Year Seminar, led by Associate Professor of History Kristin Olbertson, is taking a look one hundred years back in history to the Spanish flu epidemic that arrived in Alma in the fall of 1918.
The First Year Seminar, “The 1918 Flu in Michigan”, aims to provide a description of what life was like in Alma during the time of the epidemic. Students are allowed to go into the library archives and view historical documents from that time, such as newspapers, photographs and other such artifacts. They even have articles about the Spanish flu from the Almanian, written during its fledgling years.
The Spanish flu, also known as influenza, arrived in the United States in 1918 and spread until 1919, when it was finally contained. In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu arrived in Detroit and quickly made its way through the state, hitting Detroit, Bay City, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and even Alma.
The college was even quarantined for a bit to ensure that the epidemic didn’t continue its path up Michigan, but several cases of the Spanish flu continued to be reported further and further up state, including cities in the Upper Peninsula such as Marquette. Overall, around 675,000 people died of the Spanish flu in the United States.
To spread awareness of the centennial of this epidemic, Olbertson is having her First Year Seminar students run several social media pages to update people on what life was like at the time of the epidemic.
They post daily news headlines following the timeline of events on the spread of the Spanish flu on their Twitter and Facebook pages, giving an almost real-time effect to those who are following it.
Olbertson is excited about the work happening in her class. “Often students have to wait until they’re in an upper level course or even graduate school before they have a chance to work extensively in the archives, and these students will be doing so in their first week of class,” Olbertson says. The students’ work doesn’t just cover the historical perspective of the Spanish flu. By posting headlines on their Twitter, the students also show the rising issues related to government censorship and public health that occurred as the Spanish flu was spreading.
While officials in Detroit were aware of the spread of the Spanish flu, they downplayed its severity, and the first several deaths weren’t even published in local papers. It was only until nurses at a local hospital became sick and large amounts of new cases were being diagnosed every day did they begin to take action.
Public places such as schools and parks were closed, and weren’t allowed to reopen for several months, until the epidemic slowed.
So far, the future looks good for Olbertson’s First Year Seminar. “I’m looking forward to having first-year students experience the excitement of getting to work with these newspapers,” Olbertson says. “My hope is that they leave the class feeling empowered to conduct their own research into family or local history.”
The class will continue reporting on the spread of the Spanish flu in Michigan for the remainder of the term. Their Facebook page, Michigan Flu 1918, and their Twitter page, @MichFlu_1918, are updated consistently and contain several articles and headlines concerning the Spanish flu in Michigan and in Alma.