DU History / History

When campus caught the flu

Influenza Hospital 1918

This emergency hospital in Fort Funston, Kan., was similar to the temporary hospital built at DU to treat influenza victims in 1918. Photo: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology

“Avoid needless crowding … Smother your coughs and sneezes … Wash your hands before eating … ”

These words of advice bring to mind warnings heard around the world during the recent H1N1/swine flu scare, but they were actually uttered in the fall of 1918 by Dr. William Sharpley, Denver manager of health. The Spanish influenza had finally come to Denver.

More than 1,000 had already died in Boston, and more than 100 in Chicago.

The first Denver fatality was a young DU student named Blanche Kennedy, who died at the home of her brother William on Sept. 28, 1918.

Kennedy is something of a mystery. Twenty years old at the time of her death, she came from a prominent Colorado pioneer family. Her father, also named William, had been a member of the Colorado Constitutional Convention of 1876 and was later city attorney of Leadville. Her uncle was D. F. Crilly, who built the Windsor Hotel in Denver.

According to a Rocky Mountain News article at the time, Blanche acquired the flu while visiting family in Chicago. A week later, brother William also died of the flu, becoming Denver’s sixth casualty. William had been a Denver assistant city attorney and left behind a wife and child. His home at 2070 Birch St. was immediately quarantined.

Records in the registrar’s office show that Kennedy attended the DU Preparatory School from 1916 to 1918, though she never appears in the student yearbook, the student newspaper or in any other DU administrative records.

Classes at DU had just begun when Blanche died. On Oct. 2, 1918, DU and all other schools in Denver were shut down by order of the city board of health. A week later, all outdoor gatherings in Denver were banned.

Though DU astronomer Herbert Howe noted in his diary on Oct. 7 that “no one of our students is known to be ill with [the flu],” what most concerned then-Chancellor Henry Buchtel was the fact that 266 Student Army Training Corps (SATC) members were living in close quarters in the Alumni Gymnasium, training for possible future deployment to Europe.

World War I was raging, and earlier in the year military training had become compulsory for all men younger than 30 enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts. Soon, so many SATC men became ill that a temporary hospital was built next to the gymnasium. It quickly filled to overflowing. There do not appear to have been any fatalities on campus, however.

World War I brought great changes to campus, but now the war was winding down. An armistice was signed on Nov. 11—during the flu closure—bringing an end to the war. That same day, Sharpley lifted his orders mandating that schools be closed. On Nov. 16 the football season was allowed to begin and DU beat the Aggies.

On Nov. 18, DU officially reopened. The four platoons of SATC men were mustered out on Dec. 20.

Statistics of the period are unreliable, but it’s estimated that between 40 million and 100 million people died of the flu worldwide between 1918 and 1920, 675,000 of them in the United States.

There were between 3,000 and 8,000 flu victims in Colorado, around 1,500 in the city of Denver. Blanche Kennedy appears to have been the only one with a direct DU connection.

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