Columbia and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

It’s been nearly 100 years since the infamous 1918 influenza epidemic swept the globe. As we’re in the middle of our own flu season you might be wondering how Columbia fared during that time.

The answer: really well.

While millions of people were dying around the world from this relentless scourge, the students at Columbia University (most of whom were involved in the Student Army Training Corps which essentially took over the campus in the autumn of 1918) were kept remarkably healthy.

Dr. William H. McCastline was Columbia’s Medical Director. He was faced with a reported 200 cases of flu and 48 cases of pneumonia.

A Report of the University Medical Director, Dr. William H. McCastline, in 1919 stated: “We had 200 cases of influenza, 48 cases of pneumonia, with but two deaths. Our health record is among the best thus far reported in S.A.T.C. camps throughout the country.” A Report of the Administrative Board of the Student Army Training Corps in that same year, submitted by Dean Herbert E. Hawkes addressed the epidemic by stating: “The Board gave serious thought to the question raised by the epidemic of influenza, but finally decided, on the advice of competent medical advisory board, to proceed with the S.A.T.C. induction on October 1 as originally planned. The measures adopted by the post surgeon met the influenza epidemic very successfully keeping the death rate at the remarkable figure of 0.8 per cent. per thousand men.” On January 6, 1919 there was a resolution passed by the Trustees thanking Dr. William H. McCastline and Dr. George L. Meylan for “their devoted and remarkably successful efforts for the care and protection of students of the S.A.T.C. [Student Army Training Corps] in the recent epidemic of influenza.”

– Jocelyn Wilk, University Archivist for Columbia University