From the Archives: The History of Disease Outbreaks at Albion College

The graduating class of 1919 experienced the outbreak of the Spanish Flu first hand in October of 1918. At the time of the outbreak, classes closed for a week along with the movie theatre (Photo Courtesy of Albion College Archives and Special Collections).

Albion College was founded 185 years ago, which means this isn’t the first time the school has been faced with a pandemic. Many of these diseases were much deadlier than Covid-19 (which has a fatality rate of 0.25%–3.0%). Albion College has never closed down for more than a week for a disease, not even when the Spanish Flu was on campus from 1917 to 1919.

A newspaper clipping from the 1918 outbreak of the measles at Albion College drew attention to Sigma Chi fraternity’s 10-day quarantine (Photo Courtesy of Albion College Archives and Special Collections).

Measles: 1918 

The measles dates back to the seventh century. It has a fatality rate of 15% with a 25% chance of neurological damage. Before 1963, when the vaccine was created, there were an estimated 3-4 million cases annually. The measles previously had an epidemic every 2-3 years, and Albion College soon became infected. 

On February 20th, 1918, fraternity members frantically wrote to their parents, asking if they were immune to the Measles. Sigma Chi, Alpha Tau Omega and Delta Tau Delta all became centers for the measles and mumps. The houses were quickly put into quarantine. Students who had never contracted the measles before were quarantined for 10 days, while those who had the measles as a child went about their days as usual.

Spanish Flu: 1918

In November of 1918, the Pleiad published a series of letters from a student, “Jim,” (no last name was cited) describing his experience with the Spanish Flu. He stayed in the gymnasium, which had been temporarily turned into a hospital, as he struggled to stay alive (Photo Courtesy of Albion College Archives and Special Collections).

The Spanish Flu spread worldwide and is one of the more recent pandemics. The fatality rate was estimated to be greater than 2.5%, but the highest mortality rate was in the 20-40 year age group. This meant that Albion’s students were especially vulnerable in October of 1918 when everyone came back from summer break. 

The college moved quickly and turned both Robinson and the old gymnasium into hospitals. They later turned the Delta Gamma Lodge into a hospital as well. A total of 2,217 people died between 1917 and 1918 from the Spanish Flu. It appears that Albion’s campus only had 150 cases and only one student death.

In December of 1952, Albion College students banded together to raise funds for a Kalamazoo College athlete who contracted Polio (Photo Courtesy of Albion College Archives and Special Collections).

Polio: 1952

The first outbreaks of Polio began appearing in the United States in 1843, reaching a peak in 1952. Polio is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis. Children were often asymptomatic and had a fatality rate of 2-5%, while adults were highly at risk with a fatality rate of 15-30%. During its peak, there were 57,628 reported cases of Polio with 3,145 deaths. 

According to articles published by The Pleiad during the outbreak, polio wasn’t all that frightening for students. Polio cases in Albion’s community and in other small colleges brought students together. Student organizations like sports teams and Greek fraternities were quick to raise funds and any other help for those in their community with Polio.

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