Lesssons for COVID-19: Spanish Flu at Brigham Young University
Check out the latest podcast episode Listen

Lessons from 1918

A century ago BYU took on a worldwide pandemic that upended campus in remarkably similar ways to COVID-19.

A Classroom of BYU students in 1919 wearing white medical masks
In January 1919 BYU students assembled in College Hall wear hygienic masks to help prevent the spread of a post-war flu pandemic. Classes had been canceled from October to December 1918. Photo courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections, UAP 2 F-092.

While the effects of COVID-19 on campus may feel unprecedented, canceling classes, sending students home, and sidelining sporting contests have all happened before—just over a century ago.

“SPANISH INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC—SCHOOL CLOSED. HALT!!” was the command that “came ringing through the halls of the Brigham Young University,” according to the Oct. 16, 1918, edition of the White and Blue campus newspaper.

The front page of BYU's White and Blue student newspaper for October 16, 1918. The headline reads "Spanish Influenza Epidemic--School Closed. Halt!!"
With the threat of the 1918 flu, BYU canceled classes and sent students home. Image courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library.

As World War I ended, returning soldiers and citizens worldwide faced a new deadly enemy: the 1918 influenza. In total its three waves infected half a billion people—approximately a third of the world’s population—and eventually claimed an estimated 20 to 100 million lives.

But in mid-October 1918, the White and Blue staff writer wasn’t too concerned: “The situation is not serious, . . . and the enforced vacation will probably not be longer than a week.” The article continued, “The time need not be lost,” and encouraged students to pick apples, dig beets, or mix cement for a new mechanic-arts building on Temple Hill.

In the end the flu pandemic closed campus until January 1919, canceling three months of classes, athletic events, dances, debates, and theater productions. As BYU students returned for winter 1919 classes, many restrictions on activities remained in place, and they found it difficult to recognize friends through flu masks. And among those missing were President George H. Brimhall and a dean, both quarantined at home with their families. According to a Jan. 19 White and Blue editorial, “The school is doing its utmost in compliance with the city rules, and to insure safety here. Large gatherings are positively avoided.”

A cartoon from early 1919 in BYU's student newspaper showing various styles of medical masks to fight the 1918 flu. The caption reads, "Advanced Styles in Masks (Paris)."
When BYU resumed classes in January 1919, the White and Blue student newspaper poked a little fun at the new fashion accessory of medical masks. Image courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library.

To that end, the public had been kept away from President Joseph F. Smith’s funeral in November and the Church’s April 1919 general conference would be moved to June. Likewise, travel and crowd concerns kept BYU fans from accompanying the men’s basketball team to February’s rivalry game up north, opting for safer “long-distance cheering.”

Every week for months, a few obituaries memorializing students from the university, high school, and training school appeared in the White and Blue. By summer 1919 the flu waves had finally passed. “Hundreds died in Utah County, many families being wiped out,” according to Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years.

With curtailed classes and social activities, the editorial in the Feb. 5, 1919, White and Blue suggested students polish up on school yells, study current events, read scriptures, take brisk walks, and write letters, saying, “The possibilities of these days, although different, are real. Make them days, students. Make each one stand for something achieved. Don’t let these masks hide everything in sight.”

Five pictures of BYU students in 1919 wearing medical masks. The caption reads, "Snaps from our "Maskerade Ball""
A January 1919 White and Blue student newspaper also noted that any gathering of BYU students had become a “Maskerade Ball.” Image courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library.