MONMOUTH, Ill. — If you think about it, a college campus is not unlike a cruise ship — a diverse population occupying a confined space where community members socialize, eat and sleep together for an extended period of time. It’s not surprising, then, that many colleges have adopted a cruise ship model in sketching out emergency plans for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.
That’s exactly what Monmouth College did in 1918 when it instituted a quarantine after the world was rocked by the H1N1 pandemic known as Spanish influenza. The plan worked — for a while.
The circumstances leading up the quarantine were complex, which is understandable considering the complexity of the world situation at the time. In early 1918, Germany had launched massive new offensives against the Allies and U-boats were appearing in U.S. waters. With a growing need for recruits, the War Department established the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) at colleges throughout the United States, enabling male students to receive military training while pursuing their college studies so they could be prepared for active Army service. In exchange, they received room, board, clothing and a monthly stipend.
Monmouth College was one of 525 institutions joining the effort, and during that summer President T. H. McMichael selected seven students to attend a special 60-day training camp at Fort Sheridan near Chicago. Returning to campus, the trainees assisted a commanding officer in training the Monmouth SATC unit, which was organized on Oct. 1, 1918.
Meanwhile, a strain of the H1N1 virus that had caused 48 soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, to die from pneumonia earlier that year had made its way to the battlefields of Europe, where it not only spread but mutated into a deadlier virus. By September, as infected soldiers returned to the U.S., the general public became infected, and mass deaths from pneumonia began occurring in cities around Oct. 1, just as Monmouth’s SATC unit was organized.
Woodbine Cottage, a college-owned former residence directly across Broadway from Wallace Hall, was converted to “The Barracks,” with 60 cadets living in the house, 20 cadets sleeping in the barn behind the building and the remainder housed in the college’s old gymnasium.
Each day following reveille, the men attended classes during the morning and early afternoon, before spending the rest of the afternoon in drilling. After dinner, two hours were spent studying, followed by taps.
Although no cases of Spanish flu had yet been diagnosed in the Monmouth community, Dr. Adelma G. Patton, a Monmouth College trustee who served as physical fitness coordinator for the SATC, was concerned — both about the health of the cadets and of the women students living in McMichael Home, the college’s only dormitory. He prepared a hospital room in the barracks and on Oct. 7 he spoke to the dormitory women about how to avoid catching the flu.
The following day, the seriousness of the flu began to hit home, as a student named Ruth McConnell, who had earlier applied to enter the Army Training School for Nurses, was ordered by the Surgeon General to report to Camp Grant near Rockford or Camp Custer in Michigan to care for influenza victims.
On Oct. 15, although no cases had yet appeared on campus, Monmouth College was placed under strict quarantine. Dormitory girls were to be confined to the campus and SATC cadets to the barracks when not at drill. Dr. Patton announced that any students leaving the city would be forbidden to return to campus until the quarantine was lifted, and that students living in town should remain at home if a member of their family became sick.
The ban also extended to the athletic field. Following the opening football game against Augustana, the remainder of the football season was canceled.
The seriousness of the situation really hit home when a popular student named Ralph Ferguson, who had entered the service Sept. 1, succumbed to the flu at Chicago’s Armour Technology Institute, where he was a sergeant drilling recruits. President McMichael spoke at his funeral at Monmouth’s First Presbyterian Church and many students attended. The SATC unit acted as guard of honor at the gravesite and fired a salute.
A few days later, Dr. Paul Martin a Monmouth graduate treating patients at Camp Custer, died from the flu. Because of the quarantine, Monmouth students were not allowed to attend his funeral, but held a memorial service in front of Wallace Hall at the same hour.
Lillian Ferguson, the widow of Ralph Ferguson, whom she had married just months before he contracted influenza, was appointed nurse in charge of McMichael Hall. She was assisted by three students who worked at nurses’ assistants in a Chicago hospital the previous summer.
Ten Monmouth College graduates who were teaching at schools in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana that had closed due to influenza returned to Monmouth on Oct. 22.
The nation rejoiced on Nov. 11 with the signing of the armistice, and the following day the college celebrated by cautiously lifting the ban requiring college girls who lived in town to stay off campus. As no cases of the flu had yet surfaced, they were asked to judiciously decide if it was safe for them to resume their studies.
College life began to return to normalcy. The women students resumed their work making Red Cross comfort kits for soldiers and plans were made for the Thanksgiving break. Because “town” girls had missed so much school, they (and the faculty) would be given only Thanksgiving Day as a vacation, while the dormitory girls would be given a three-day holiday to return home.
But on the day before Thanksgiving, one of the dormitory girls was diagnosed with influenza. To avoid an outbreak in McMichael Hall, President McMichael advised as many girls as possible to go home and not return until after the holidays. About a dozen girls remained in the dorm, while many who went home contracted the flu, as did a number of the town girls.
Soon, influenza was rampant in Monmouth. The schools were forced to close and everyone on the streets wore masks. At 218 South 2nd Street, 7-year-old Ronald “Dutch” Reagan watched helplessly as his mother, Nelle, became deathly ill. She eventually recovered — some believed it was because her doctor prescribed green cheese. Then it was Dutch’s turn to come down with a case of pneumonia. Returning to Monmouth during the presidential primary season of 1976, Reagan visited his former house and recalled those harrowing days when neighbors’ houses bore “No Admittance” quarantine signs on their doors.
Given the worsening conditions, President McMichael ordered college classes suspended indefinitely, with the hope that they could resume after the new year.
In the barracks, several cadets became ill. Some were removed to Monmouth Hospital, but those in good health were relocated to Wallace Hall. All of them were issued gauze masks, which they wore at all times except at meals.
On Dec. 19, the SATC unit was formally dissolved and the college was shuttered. Two days after Christmas, President McMichael issued a “season’s greetings” card announcing classes would resume at 7:45 a.m. on Jan. 3.
Almost as suddenly as it had descended upon the city of Monmouth, the influenza outbreak quickly ran its course and college resumed Jan. 3 with no new cases reported. But tragedy struck just a week later when a freshman named Arthur Lackey, who had contracted the flu while living in the barracks, collapsed at basketball practice. Despite attempts at artificial respiration, he never regained consciousness. Officially his death was attributed to a weak heart, but potentially the flu had also played a role.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.