Berkeley and the 1918 Flu (First Installment)

Steven Finacom
Copyright by the author
Wednesday March 18, 2020 - 09:19:00 PM


When the news arrived this March 16 with virtually no advance notice that Berkeleyeans were ordered to “shelter in place” at home for three weeks, starting the next day, I remembered an interesting little fact from history. In 1945 there was a newspaper deliveryman’s strike in New York City and papers, although printed, didn’t reach much of the general public. New York’s third term Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had a regular weekly radio show. In July he decided he would read the comics in the papers over his radio show so New York children could keep up with their favorite characters. He was also making a political statement (because, although generally pro-union, he opposed the strike).

Now I’m no mayor, thank goodness and I’m not making a political statement, but recalling that incident gave me the idea to write serially about the 1918 flu epidemic and how it was experienced in Berkeley, for all of you sequestered at home these days waiting out the 2020 epidemic.

Many Daily Planet readers may know that I already write a weekly column summarizing Berkeley history a century ago, published each Friday in the pages of the Berkeley Voice.

I have often said, based on extensive reading and research in Berkeley history for that column and other projects, that most things that happen here today have happened in Berkeley before. This is notwithstanding the near-constant statements by proud or prideful civic leaders or journalists today that something they’ve done or proposed or covered is a “first” for Berkeley (it’s usually not, but the actual first time something similar happened has typically been forgotten).

So has Berkeley experienced an influenza emergency before? Yes, as all the world did, in 1918 / 19 when the “Spanish Influenza” pandemic circled the globe and, as fall 1918 began, struck our city. 

I’ve looked back through the Berkeley Daily Gazettes from that period to try to understand and summarize for you Berkeley’s probable first—or at least early—experience with an international health emergency. 

I’ll go roughly chronologically, starting with October, 1918, and hope to produce several updates to appear here in the Planet by the time the current crisis eases, which I hope it does soon. 

I am not going to look much further than the Gazette in order to write these installments. It is certain that other newspapers of the time would have carried additional, and perhaps different, material but I suspect the Gazette remains the main, most detailed, primary source for the Berkeley experience in 1918/19. I wish I could also consult the Daily Californian from that era, but I do know it was the case that the Gazette frequently ran material direct from Daily Cal stories, so it’s likely much of the relevant campus news also made it into the “town” newspaper. 

Beginning of October, 1918 

When October opened 102 years ago, there was no mention of local influenza cases on the front page of the Berkeley Daily Gazette. The spreading crisis had not yet risen to the top of the news. Instead, the paper concentrated on war updates, and government and economic news. 

Overseas, the “Great War” was still raging. There was heavy fighting in the Argonne region of France, British troops were approaching Damascus while French soldiers closed in on Beirut, and there were “peace demonstrations” reported in Berlin, even as the Kaiser asked Germans to “give their blood and wealth, to the last breath, in defense of the Fatherland.” More than 1.5 million Allied troops were estimated to be “engaged on active fronts”. These included not only British, French, and American troops but Balkan forces fighting against Germany, Austria, and Turkey, and even Japanese soldiers in Siberia. 

October 3, 1918, the Gazette reported that A.C. Simonds, a Marine lieutenant and UC alumnus, had been killed in action Sept 15. Another, Frank C. Romero, was reported as “severely wounded” and a third, Eric M. Sullivan, serving with Canadian forces in France, had won “a medal for bravery”. The latter two had both served previously in Company C of the Berkeley National Guard unit. 

Votes for Women 

In Washington D.C. on October 1, the Senate fell short by three votes of approving women’s suffrage legislation. The body voted 53 to 31 in favor, but needed a two thirds majority. An amendment to “exclude negro women” from the vote was offered by a Mississippi Senator who said more Southerners would vote for suffrage if that discriminatory change were included. His amendment was tabled 61-22, meaning it lost. 

War Bonds 

In Berkeley, a large “Liberty Loan” rally was held at the Shattuck Hotel on October 1. 5,488 Berkeleyans had already contributed to Berkeley’s quota to buy Federal war bonds, and Berkeley had raised more than $918,000, but was still short by about $1.5 million of its goal. 

(“Mass meetings” of this sort, before the full rise of broadcast media, were an essential tool in building local enthusiasm for causes and crusades. If you had an issue or project to publicize or debate, getting scores or hundreds of people together in a social gathering to whip up enthusiasm was the accepted way. You called a “mass meeting” or held a banquet or luncheon or rally. This would, of course, prove problematic once a highly infectious disease arrived, especially during the fall and winter.) 

800 women volunteers had been enlisted in Berkeley to raise the remaining money and were energetically canvassing local homes and businesses. By October 4, total pledges were up to more than $1.7 million. 

A “mass meeting” of another sort was announced for October 10 to organize a Berkeley “community chorus”. No musical training or fees would be required. 

State Election 

California would hold an election on November 5, 1918 and an advertisement reminded voters they could register to vote at the City Clerk’s office, or at seven local grocery or drug stores. One of the businesses was “Saylor’s Drug Store” at the corner of Dwight and Shattuck. Mr. Saylor, the owner, would have a special reason to encourage voter registration. His wife, Anna Saylor would, in 1918, become one of the first four women in California to win election to the State Assembly. 

Throughout the first week of the month the Gazette ran long lists of those who were registered to vote and the local address they had given. As was common practice in the paper at the time, only non-white voters were identified by racial signifiers such as “Negro” or “Oriental”. 

UC Welcome 

It was traditional for the University to gather students together for live events, and President Benjamin Ide Wheeler welcomed students to UC for the new academic year at a University Meeting held in the Greek Theatre on October 1, 1918. 

The University of California opens today its gates for its second half-century. The first half century has passed already into well-assured history. A definite service has been rendered to state and society and to individual lives. Teachers, students, and the mechanism of study are assembled to continue the work for another period, but no man can prophesy the times or the issues of the future or appoint its fates. This only we know: the things we have put to the hazard of war are worth the supreme risk, for without them the world is no decent place to dwell in. 

Wheeler introduced new military officers teaching at the University and noted: The nation has commandeered the universities, so far as its male students are concerned. These students are to constitute a StudentsArmy Training Corps, and are to be practically although not absolutely enlisted in the army. They are to be uniformed, sheltered, fed and paidas we would put it in the civilian tongueand are to be subject to full and continuous military disciplinemany will stay with us only for three months, others for six months or ninefew probably longer than nine, except students of medicine, engineering, or chemistry. The others shall be sent to special training camps as the government may appoint. 

(The SATC contingents on the Berkeley campus would figure prominently in the coming influenza crisis. And it would later be concluded that two SATC soldiers / students coming to Berkeley from the East in early October were carriers of the Spanish Flu. Perhaps some who carried the flu were even in Wheeler’s audience that day.) 

Wheeler said that it was expected that about 2,000 army cadets would be based on the Berkeley campus, and another 500 for the navy. Available temporary barracks housing and resources might stretch those numbers to 3,000, if needed. 

Combining them with regular, non-military, students, “we must therefore be prepared for 8,000 using the grounds, classrooms, and other equipment of the university.” The numbers would be much larger, he added, if the University wasn’t requiring all students to take 12 full units of classes, thus eliminating part time studies. The academic year had also been changed from two standard semesters to three, 12 week, terms. 

(Those 8,000 students, when combined with faculty and staff of the time, probably meant the daytime campus population could grow as large as 8,500 to 9,000 in Fall, 1918. Today, in comparison, there are more than 40,000 students at the Berkeley campus and many thousand faculty and staff—a small city within a city. Of course there are also many more campus buildings today than in 1918, but keep in mind that the physical grounds of the University’s central campus did not grow enormously after that year, aside from incremental additions of land in the 1920s through the 1960s that extended the campus fully to the Bancroft Way border. So the density of the typical daily campus population today is probably five or six times that of a century ago.) 

Wheeler also said that 120 UC faculty were away on government war work, “almost every day one is robbed from our teaching roles”, and university leaders were “at our wits’ end” in terms of getting enough qualified instructors. But, he emphasized, we must keep the fires burning on the home altars. There must be no break in the continuity of scientific work and the persistence of learning. We must not run any risk of impairing the supply of doctors of medicine, dentists, engineers, nurses or, for that matter, of clergy, teachers, pathologists, bacteriologists, physicists, lawyers or, after all, of men of letters or philosophy. War must not and shall not rob us of our equipment of society and drag us down into the morass of barbarism.

(One of Wheeler’s junior administrators at the time, Robert Gordon Sproul, would later sound the same note during World War II when, as UC President himself, he vigorously led the University into war work and support, but firmly rejected and spoke against the idea that the campus should stop teaching other disciplines during the war crisis.) 

Flu Noted 

Finally, on October 4, 1918 the Gazette made its first front page mentions that month regarding the “Spanish Flu” epidemic. 

“Spanish Flu is now said to be reaching the four corners of the earth”, a United Press story said. “A State Department message noted its presence in Teheran.” 1,040 were reported dead from the flu among American servicemen stationed in the United States, and Washington D.C. was closing its churches and playgrounds to “prevent spread of the epidemic”. In San Francisco, 16 new cases had been reported in the past 24 hours. 

And in Berkeley, Mrs. Alice Kinne Burnham, wife of Dr. Clark J. Burnham, and one of the most prominent club and philanthropic women of the city, died this morning at the family home, Bushnell Place, following a weeks illness of pneumonia. She was a native San Franciscan, 46 years old, and left five children. 

There would be many such stories and deaths in the following months.