The Spanish flu, Villanova College and Philadelphia
If you walk past the Augustinian Community Cemetery on the University lawn overlooking Lancaster Avenue, you may notice the graves of three young seminarians buried next to each other. In October 1918, over the course of six days, these three seminary students died in Saint Mary’s Hall from Spanish influenza. Gilbert F. Klunk, 23, died on October 10, only four months after arriving at the seminary from McSherrystown, Pennsylvania. John F. Dorgan, from Massachusetts, succumbed on October 11, just six days before his 25th birthday. Albert J. Starr, a convert from Colorado, died on October 15 at the age of 30.
The flu is with us every year, and thousands of people become mildly ill for a few days with chills, fever and muscle aches before making a complete recovery. For only a small percentage of the population is the flu a life-threatening disease.
In 1918, the flu season was very different. The “Spanish flu,” so called since one of the first towns afflicted was San Sebastian on the northern coast of Spain, turned into a deadly pandemic where millions were infected on every continent. It hit hard and it hit fast. The terrible and surprising difference was that vital, healthy people between 20 and 40 died in record numbers. Many people who died actually drowned from fluid in the lungs within days or even hours of becoming ill. Others suffered complications from pneumonia.
The commonly accepted number of deaths worldwide attributed to the Spanish flu and its complications is 21 million, but many feel this number may be too conservative and that it could be much higher. An exact count of lives lost can never be precisely calculated because of the lack of accurate recordkeeping throughout the world during that period. Gina Kolata, in her book, Flu, says, “Humanity had been struck by a disease that killed more people in a few months’ time than any other illness in the history of the world.”
In the United States, approximately 500,000 died. The Spanish flu hit Philadelphia the hardest of any city in the United States, probably because of its Naval Yard and its proximity to two large army bases, Fort Dix in New Jersey and Fort Meade in Maryland. These installations were overflowing with thousands of World War I forces.
Also, on September 28 that year, 200,000 patriotic Americans were drawn to the Philadelphia streets to attend a Liberty Loan Drive, to watch the parade and help finance World War I. The flu spread throughout the population, and the city lost over 12,000 of its citizens during the peak weeks of September 20 through November 8. On October 10 alone, 759 deaths were reported.
Since the city’s health and medical facilities were so overwhelmed, many area nuns volunteered to assist with medical care, housekeeping and spiritual support. At Villanova College, out of an enrollment of 308, 173 students were infected. The Army quarantined the campus, and seven nurses from Bryn Mawr Hospital, aided by six Saint Joseph nuns, handled the students' care.
Rev. Frances E. Tourscher, College librarian from 1923 to 1939, wrote his book, Work of the Sisters During the Epidemic of Influenza October 1918, describing how the various religious orders and parishes of the diocese helped people in need during this unprecedented crisis. Father Tourscher recounts many personal experiences of the nuns and concludes with a list of the religious from the area who became victims of the deadly flu. Falvey Memorial Library has a copy of this book in its print collection and in its digital library.
A special thank you to Rev. Dennis Gallagher, O.S.A., for his assistance with this article.
Article and photography by Natalie Tomasco
Suggestions for additional reading:
Contosta, David R., and Dennis J. Gallagher. Ever Ancient, Ever New: Villanova University 1842-1992. Virginia Beach: Donning, 1992.
Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.
Ghedin E, Sengamalay NA, Taubenberger JK, et al. "Large-scale sequencing of human influenza reveals the dynamic nature of viral genome evolution." Nature. 2005;437:1162-6.
Kolata, G. Flu. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Shannon, Gary W., and Gerald F. Pyle Disease and Medical Care in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
Tourscher, Francis E. Work of the Sisters During the Epidemic of Influenza October, 1918. Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society, 1919.