ASK THE UTIMES: What happened at Pitt during the 1918 flu?

Copy of The Pitt Weekly from 1918


Want to survive the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic? Chew your food well, drink water upon waking and “avoid tight clothing, tight shoes, tight gloves,” advised one Pittsburgh newspaper as the disease first appeared here on October 1918. “Try to keep cool when you walk and warm when you ride and sleep,” it added. Open your windows, especially at night, and breathe through your nose.

That pandemic 100 years ago — which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide — was different from our current one — and oh so similar. Among the other then-current advice: “Avoid needless crowding,” “smother your coughs and sneezes,” and wash your hands.

Just a month before the “grippe” hit Pittsburgh, the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) had drafted many of Pitt’s male students for World War I, which the U.S. had entered 18 months earlier, and Pitt housed camps for its own Army students and those from Carnegie Tech. By Oct. 11, there were already 2,364 flu cases in the city, but Pitt still sent 20 medical students east to Schuylkill County to try to fight the disease there.

By Oct. 24, the first military instructor on campus died at Elizabeth Steel Magee Hospital from influenza. In the previous 24 hours, there had been 39 new flu cases and nine pneumonia cases among the soldier-students here. “At one point, 673 of Pitt’s SATC contingent were hospitalized,” Pitt Med magazine said in 2003. “Of those whose cases developed into pneumonia, 99 died, a mortality rate of 44 percent.”

The Army commandeered Mercy and Magee hospitals, the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine reported in 1985. The Concordia Club — now the O’Hara Student Center — housed convalescing soldiers.

Quarantine hit the campus, with “guards at Bigelow Boulevard and Fifth Avenue (who) prevented anyone from entering or leaving,” Pitt Med said. But the quarantine was lifted on Nov. 12. The college football season, cancelled at its start, was revived as well.

As the flu peaked and subsided across more than 24 months, campus activities followed suit. By early in 1919, the association between crowding and contagion seems to have been forgotten, with the papers printing columns of influenza death notices next to announcements like this: “For the entertainment of soldiers and sailors in Pittsburgh, the war camp community service will hold dances tonight at 8 o’clock in the Eighteenth Regiment Armory” — at Thackeray and O’Hara streets. Grab your partner and skip to the morgue.

“Cold Ice Cream Cones And Hot Checker Games Claim Spotlight At Pitt Frolics,” read one March 20, 1919 headline. “Students Thoroughly Enjoy Both As Well As Wrestling Bout Between Blind Boys While Waiting Program Headliners …”

By April of that year, the citywide tally of influenza cases was 28,112.

A year after the pandemic first hit, Magee Hospital, which had been closed for 10 months, announced plans to join the University and reopen by Jan. 1, 1920, in an “arrangement” with Pitt’s School of Medicine. Pitt “will thus have a clinical association,” as such prestigious institutions as Johns Hopkins had before it, the papers said, and Pitt’s medical professors would be its clinical staff.

According to the Historical Magazine piece, Pittsburgh overall “had the highest death rate of any major city in the United States. The flu killed at least 4,500 people — more than one in every 100 residents. Nearly 24,000 patients sickened by the flu sought treatment at city hospitals.”

Pitt professors in the School of Medicine had worked on a vaccine, but the cause of the disease in humans — an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin — wouldn’t be discovered until 1933.

With the Pure Food and Drug Act, aimed at preventing patent medicines from making outrageous claims to prevent or cure everything, not appearing until 1923, the same newspapers full of death notices also advertised such nostrums as Bulgarian Blood Tea as influenza preventatives, alongside remedies for piles and catarrh.

In 2020, there still are no panaceas.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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