The Spanish flu at Alma

WADE FULLERTON
STAFF WRITER

Young College men – some in uniform – wearing cloth masks to help prevent the spread of the Spanish Flu in 1918.

“Fashions change, even in war times.” These were the opening words within the December edition of the Weekly Almanian. At this point in time, Alma College emerged into a new chapter of its history. President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and a deadly form of influenza was spreading globally. Faces familiar to students—friends, family, professors and neighbors—were either off to war in France or covered by a cloth mask.

Amid The Great War, Alma College quarantined in an attempt to slow the spread of the deadly respiratory infection known to millions as the Spanish Flu. By 1918, the Spanish influenza virus had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands worldwide. Its arrival signs were felt around the state, from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, Lansing and even here in Alma.

Masks became a necessary measure to combat the spread of this respiratory disease. Even over one hundred years ago, the Alma College student body’s reaction to masks has remained constant.

“Now must the eyes smile instead of the lips. Now must the forehead and the ears blush in place of the cheeks. Truly the eyes must bear the heaviest burden of expression.” The college was handling the pandemic well in 1918. Students and faculty were more than happy to help their neighbors in a time of social and political upheaval.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Alma College students would uphold the college’s mission statement values. For students to “think critically, serve generously, lead purposefully and live responsibly as stewards of the world they bequeath to future generations.” The generation that lived through the pandemic performed all of these values and more to help stop the spread of the Spanish flu. Today, our campus follows in their footsteps.

Life changed at Alma, and the graceful way the writer recorded the campus—despite the circumstances—brings a smile to one’s face.

“Dr. Brokenshire wears his mask as he attends to everything—religiously. He never pushes it to one side or up or down, nor does he sneak breath around the corner, but always sees to it that his voice and every breath is carefully strained.”

Student men of the SATC—Student Army Training Corps—sang at Alma College’s Chapel in December 1918, adorned with cloth masks distributed by the Red Cross.

“Chapel was, at first, the place of many amusing sights. The seats were filled with mummies who had been embalmed in sitting postures in order to watch the world revolve. Soon, however, there was much discomfort when, as they sang, the notes would re-echo and roll around inside the masks awhile before finding the outlet over the right ear or under the left eye. Sometimes this process would cause an unpleasant sensation called a tickle, so that the unfortunate person forthwith sneezed. Whereat the righteous drew away and whispered influenza.”

These values will always have relevance. Even in a society battling over masks, Alma College has always done what is right for its community.

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