'A rapid recovery we wish to them all’ – UP Archives looks back at how the Spanish Flu of 1918 affected student life

Posted on September 07, 2020

The last time that an international pandemic caused the closure of the University of Pretoria (UP) was in 1918, just over 100 years ago. The Spanish Flu epidemic reached South Africa in September 1918, and the following month became known locally as “Black October” as infections and deaths skyrocketed. Although the effects of this catastrophic epidemic had effectually ebbed by November 1918, the University, at that time known as the Transvaal University College, still felt its effects among its student and staff population.

The official impact of the epidemic is first seen in a decision taken by the Council of the College in October 1918. In view of the prevailing epidemic” the Council approved “such emergency expenditure as the Rector might consider necessary”. The College also later took the decision to end the academic year early, and exams were postponed until the beginning of 1919.

ADMINISTRATOR APPEAL X 2: An excerpt found in the Rand Daily Mail of the time – October 1918 (the month known as Black October) – which calls for volunteers, as referenced in Dr Strydom’s article.

A small collection of student reminiscences also record the way that the epidemic affected the student body of the College. One student later remembered:

But in the year 1918 the whole world fell under the Spanish Flu and the population of Pretoria was also affected. By the Summer of 1918 the situation was so bad, that it was impossible to continue with classes. Numerous students were affected, but, as far as I know, no residence students died, although many were seriously ill. Groups of students, which were not yet infected, joined teams of volunteers which undertook visits to mainly the poor areas of the town, to try and help people affected by the plague. Doctors and nurses were insufficient, but in any case there was very little that could be done against such a plague, except to provide food (usually soup) and to try help in emergency cases. Those who were ill were advised to lie still and under no circumstances to try to wash or bath. I remember that so many people died that the horses which drew the hearses had to jog to the cemetery. Among students who still remained behind in the residences there was a general spirit of fatalism. You had to wait and see what was going to happen with you.

I remember that one night a group of students gathered together in the house “Glory Hole”. There was a feeling to lift the heaviness a little and a number of bottles of beer were acquired to help with this. Mr Otten, a large man with a round face, who also wore glasses, played on his guitar and the other men sang together with him. It all helped to relieve the tension.

Duke Erlank (or Eitemal), who would go on to become a well-known Afrikaans poet, was also a student in 1918. He commented that the exams of 1918 were postponed until the beginning of 1919 due to the epidemic. At the time the medium of instruction at the College was English. He and a few other students had requested to take Chemistry in Afrikaans and in response the Chemistry professor, DF du Toit Malherbe, had challenged them to answer the exam in Afrikaans and had given them a book of Dutch terms to help with their preparation. Erlank remarked that the epidemic gave him an advantage as the postponement of the exam meant that he had extra time to bring his Afrikaans Chemistry up to standard.

He also remembered a fellow student who contracted the flu at this time. This student, John Quin (later Director of Veterinary Services and Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science), had taken Erlank under his wing as a first-year student in 1918. Erlank remembers:

During the flu of 1918 John Quin quickly became sick. I often took care of him. The flu germs apparently did not find an entrance to my skinniness. One day I came into his room. He was sitting in his bed, and was pouring from a very suspicious bottle into a teaspoon something that he – grrrr! gnashed between his teeth. I asked him what it was. “No, old Lammetjie, the matron, Mrs Lindeque, said that I must use Epsom salts to clean my stomach.” My teeth went on edge and I asked, “But John, isn’t the stuff really bad?” “Yes, old Lammetjie, but what can one do?”

Classes resumed in 1919, although student numbers decreased slightly from the previous year.  There were 325 students enrolled in 1918 and only 300 in 1919. In June 1919, the Afrikaans editor of The TUC Student Magazine commented on the student population at the end of his editorial as follows:

There are again young forces which have joined us, a number of new students. We wish them a warm welcome. There are also old forces which have disappeared from the scene; among them are those who due to illness – the results of the terrible epidemic – had to leave. A rapid recovery we wish to them all.

- Author Dr Bronwyn Strydom

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