An eerily familiar Oct. 4, 1918 headline from The Hartford Courant reads, “Wesleyan Faculty Suspends Classes, Action Taken to Guard Against Influenza.”
While COVID-19 has caused unexpected disturbances to campus life, the changes aren’t unprecedented. As the pandemic ravages the country, historical parallels have caught the attention of people looking for a sense of understanding. In a way, reading about how others navigated similar periods of uncertainty and tragedy can offer some comfort. To find these historical parallels for myself, I took a trip into Olin Library’s Special Collections & Archives. University Archivist Amanda Nelson was prepared; I was not the first to enter the archives in search of COVID-19’s predecessors.
Following the recent spike in inquiries, Special Collections & Archives has decided to put together an exhibit on past infectious disease outbreaks that have affected the University, which is slated to debut this spring.
“I think we wanted to be able to show in an exhibit that while this is new for all of us, it may not be the first time that some of these things have happened in some way on campus,” Nelson said in an interview with The Argus.
“The idea of doing an exhibit about pandemics just seemed like a real downer,” Miglus said in an interview with The Argus. “So I came up with the idea of ‘Wesleyan and sickness and health’, so that there would be a little bit of a balance. We would talk about the epidemics or pandemics that had happened previously at Wesleyan, but also just some of the efforts that Wesleyan has done throughout the years to keep people healthy.”
For example, Miglus cited Biology Professor Herbert W. Conn’s contribution to preventing the spread of a typhoid epidemic in 1894. Conn sourced the typhoid-causing bacteria to raw oysters eaten at a fraternity’s initiation, prompting the State of Connecticut to condemn New Haven’s oyster beds, and saving many lives as a result.
While talking about putting together the exhibit, Miglus emphasized the importance of one publication that she came across. The publication, Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation, written by Gretchen Long ’89, covers racism in public health during the 19th century.
“In light of Black Lives Matter, it’s important to make distinctions when you’re talking about public health, that public health doesn’t serve the same people in the same way,” Miglus said.
Although the exhibit is still in its early stages of planning, Miglus hopes that the end product will capture people’s interests.
“I do hope that I can come up with something that will be a hook, that people won’t just want to walk through and just give it a glance, but will really want to engage with the exhibit,” Miglus said.
Along with giving insight into past events, the University archivists are working to document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on campus.
“It’s very rare that you know that something actually is historical when it’s happening,” Nelson explained. “Usually you look back and you go, ‘Oh, that was a really important person, who knew that they had come to campus way back when?’ Whereas, for this, you know people will want to know how Wesleyan dealt with it. I think it’s one of those things that the more we can collect now, the better the records are going to be.”
Nelson also noted that the COVID-19 collection will be the first fully digital collection for Special Collections & Archives. This will make it easier for people to access, in comparison to the 10,000 linear feet of paper records that the archives currently store.
While explaining the importance of collecting material on COVID-19, Nelson referenced the limited material that the archives have on the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Aside from a couple of editions from September, any records from the Fall 1918 Argus are virtually nonexistent. An announcement in the Wesleyan University Bulletin explains that The Argus suspended printing as a result of World War I efforts taking over campus life. The University had established a dominant Student Army Training Corps, which incorporated military training into college life.
The University Bulletin also records other significant aspects of the influenza pandemic. One bulletin praises the effectiveness of a week-long suspension of classes, while also exposing the University’s limited ability to prevent rising death counts.
“The prompt action taken in dealing with the situation, prevented the epidemic from becoming very widespread, but despite all possible precautions, there were seven deaths among the students,” the bulletin reads.
Another bulletin gives insight into the opening of the first on-campus infirmary, a precursor to the Davison Health Center.
“For a considerable period of years, Wesleyan University has relied upon the Middlesex Hospital in Middletown in a large measure for the care of any of its students who have been in need of treatment,” reads the announcement. “The local demands, however, have for some time overtaxed the available accommodations of the hospital, so that during the past two or three years it has been necessary for the University to make temporary provision for the care of most of its students in times of illness. During the present year, the influenza epidemic and other causes have required the continuous maintenance of an infirmary by the University.”
However, the absence of The Argus and other student publications make it challenging to find student perspective’s on these events.
To avoid a similar challenge in the future, Special Collections & Archives is working to collect a wide range of material on the current pandemic. Currently, the COVID-19 collection consists of emails and announcements from the administration as well as works of art and essays shared by students.
“We put out a call for doing these sort of reminiscences,” Nelson explained. “So if people do art or music, or, you know, write anything about the past six months [and] probably what the next six months are going to be like, they can come to the archives and [the works can] be kept permanently. The more information we have from different perspectives, the better. So we really try to cast a wide net.”
Nelson hopes that preserving the University’s history will help students better understand it in the future.
“I think what I always talk about with classes and students is [that Wesleyan’s history] brings history into a context that all the students understand. […]. It makes history sort of come alive and it makes it easy to find a touch point that people understand and can relate to.”
Eliza Kuller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org