Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2006

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Quarantined

Quarantined
A page from the diary of Dorothy Melrose Pryde ´21. Courtesy of Connecticut College Archives.

In 1918, Connecticut College faced down a threat that´s worrying us again today — avian flu.

By Carolyn Battista


Waves of so-called “Spanish Flu” hit the nation in September and December of 1918, originating in shipments from Europe that arrived in the port of Boston. The administration of Connecticut College for Women quarantined the campus. They relegated day students to classes in a trolley car at the College entrance and set aside one dorm floor for resident students who appeared ill. The college physician urged people to stay healthy by gargling with salt water, getting nine hours of sleep each night (with windows open) and exercising outdoors for two hours each day.

Students recorded events in their diaries, while The Connecticut College News ran stories with all-caps headlines. In “THE QUARANTINE AS SEEN BY LATIN A,” the News duly noted that “Doctor decretum confecit; decretum est pro bono publico.”(The doctor made the order; the course of action taken is for the public good.)

In “THE QUARANTINE,” the paper reported that students who were dislodged from their dorm floor, to make room for “suspects” and “cases,” gathered their belonging and headed “to the gym, there to take up residence under the palm trees.” (A New Londoner who couldn´t get coal for his conservatory had donated his potted palms.)

“With the idea of keeping everyone out of doors,” the News added, there were games of soccer, hockey and hare-and-hound, as well as vespers in the Bolleswood hemlock grove. One student wrote of the vespers in her diary: “We pitched our hymns to the sound of a cowbell we heard in the distance.”

In December, a student diarist wrote of a daily increase in influenza cases and of “a rumor that the College may be closed.” The College did shut down early for Christmas vacation — and that was that. All who became ill recovered; school resumed a week early to make up for lost time.

Today we know that the fledgling College escaped a scourge only months before its first class was to graduate. The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed some 675,000 in the United States and probably more than 50 million worldwide. Unlike most influenzas, it hit young, healthy adults especially hard. On the terrible fields of World War I, it claimed more lives than did battle wounds. More people died in a single year than in four years of the Black Plague in the 1300s. In nearby New York City, the flu claimed 35,000 lives. In Connecticut, more than 180,000 cases were reported.

We also know that the 1918 virus was an avian variety sharing many characteristics with the avian influenza that´s currently causing such concern.

Nancy Stroup ´73, who holds a Ph.D. in epidemiology, notes that federal and university scientists recently have reconstructed the 1918 flu genome, after years of work. “That´s a very big deal,” she says. The scientists worked with long-stored slides of tissue from two soldiers who died in 1918 and tissue from the body (found in permanently frozen ground) of an Alaskan woman who died at the same time.

“They were able to identify the eight-gene sequence of the 1918 virus and produce a live virus,” says Stroup. The live virus gives scientists a way to look for genetic details that may explain why the 1918 H1N1 virus was so lethal, and that may help them evaluate transformations in H5N1 or other current avian flu viruses. (The live virus is stored permanently in a secure laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

The H5N1 virus, first found in 1997 in Hong Kong, has now
appeared in Asia, Europe and Africa. It transmits mainly among birds, but so far reports show about 90 human deaths arising from bird-to-human transmission (mostly in Southeast Asia, in people having close contact with domestic birds). The virus has rarely, if ever, gone from person to person. But, Dr. Stroup points out, “Experts are concerned that a small mutation in the constantly evolving virus could allow it to transmit easily from person to person.”

The World Health Organization and the CDC stress the
urgent need to monitor avian influenza outbreaks and prepare for the possibility of rapid human-to-human spread, aided by jet-age travel. “They´re pounding the shoe on the table, saying, ´Be ready,´” says Dr. Stroup, a former chronic disease epidemiologist at the CDC.

CC aims to be ready. “We have a plan in place,” says Kenneth Larsen, the College´s medical director. Following federal and state guidelines, the plan — drafted last fall by Larsen and a College committee — includes such responses as using vaccines and anti-virals, if available; using infirmary space to help contain any outbreak, and quarantining the College, if necessary.

Granted, there are inherent problems, including the difficulty of developing effective vaccines for fast-changing viruses and the time required — about nine months — to develop, produce and distribute any vaccine. But Larsen notes that we now have help not available in 1918, from medicines to information.

During the 1918 pandemic, wartime censorship in Europe and “don´t-scare-the-public” policies here kept many people less informed and less prepared than they might have been. Now, says Larsen, “Everybody is tuned in and watching. That´s the advantage this time around.”

He doesn´t like the “hoopla” generated by political figures who — following the debacle of government response to Katrina — simply want to be seen as “preparing.” He wants real preparation, good science and sound practices. Common-sense measures that helped in 1918, from hand washing to quarantines, are still valid, he notes.

The College escaped the worst in 1918; students carried on. Stroup points out that if a new influenza strikes hard, it will be more difficult to carry on. Only “with good planning, cooperation from the community, and some luck,” she says, could CC minimize the effects of an epidemic. It would be necessary, she says, for the College to become educated about the epidemic, for those in charge to be truthful, and for everybody to follow recommended practices.

In January 1919, The Connecticut College News ran stories headlined “PRESIDENT WILSON AND THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS” and “THE PROMISE OF THE NEW YEAR.” The Great War was over; the students were healthy again. “This year promises very well,” the News said. “The first class will graduate.”


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