A History of Trinity College and the Influenza of 1918

19 min read

Brendan W. Clark ’21


The following is the culmination of research on Trinity and the 1918 influenza that was prepared by the Editor-in-Chief for Trinity with the support of the History Department and the Watkinson Library.

A digital archive in the Watkinson’s virtual museum of the Tripod articles, Courant articles, and other college documents cited in the essay will soon be publicly available.

An Introduction: The Pandemic of a Century

A review of Trinity’s response to the 1918 flu pandemic, often referred to as the “Spanish influenza” or the “Spanish flu,” is doubtless merited in our present time living through the 2019 coronavirus.[1] With that in mind, the following is a recitation of Trinity’s actions and some student responses made during the course of an event that impacted millions at the start of the twentieth. There are admittedly few Trinity sources, but those that remain illumine this region of history so relevant for us today and form the subject of our study. 

While the College archives reveal that Trinity was not unaffected by the pandemic, there is no mention of it in our two major annals of College history. Esteemed College archivist Peter Knapp ’65 makes no mention of the pandemic in Trinity College in the Twentieth Century. Rather, he notes correctly that the gravamen in 1918 for the College—and President Flavel Sweeten Luther ’70—was World War I and the institution’s military response. Knapp, quoting Luther, indicates that “other areas of concern included student social and academic life, which had suffered from the disruptions of World War I.”[2] Knapp notes, also, that the College held its Commencement in June 1918 in the midst of the pandemic. Indeed, with former President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance as an honorand and speaker, he gave his peroration to “‘the largest crowd of people ever assembled at one time on campus,’ estimated at approximately 5,000.”[3]

Professor of History Glenn Weaver, in his magisterial 1967 History of Trinity College, described the Roosevelt celebration thusly: an “Open Air Patriotic Service…[which] was held on Sunday, June 18, 1918 the day before Commencement.”[4] Weaver also mentions, in discussing World War I, that the government “ruled that ‘fraternity activities and military discipline are incompatible in the very nature of things,’ and all ‘Fraternity activities’ were temporarily suspended.”[5] Mandatory Chapel services were also discontinued under the order. Might this have been an early, unintended instantiation of “social distancing”? It seems unlikely, though perhaps there was some benefit. In any event, Weaver dedicates much of his remaining time to the “stormy interlude under Acting-President Perkins”[6] around an academic spat between Professors Humphrey and Urban. The pandemic, meanwhile, remains unaddressed.[7]  

Thus, to get at the history of the flu, we cannot look to the extant giants of Trinity history. We must assemble from the College archives snippets and fragments, extracts and excerpts, which together help us to glean some insight into the 1918 pandemic and its impact on Trinity College and its students. This brief treatise is separated into three parts: official actions first, viz. by the Board of Trustees and the College write large, followed by alumni deaths and obituaries, concluded by an examination of the student response in the Tripod

The Board of Trustees and the 1918 Pandemic 

The Board of Trustees meetings make no explicit references to the pandemic. Indeed, they address far more the state of military preparedness on campus and the general absence of the student body as a result of World War I. President Luther’s report at the April 25, 1918 meeting noted that “we opened the year with 167 names on our student roll, this figure showing a reduction of about 40% from normal…. Probably there are not more than 125 men in College and others will go.”[8] Thus, it is in the context of a comparatively small number of students on campus that the pandemic would arise and bring death to the Trinity community. 

The 1916-1917 Trinity College Student Handbook, issued shortly before the pandemic, describes the medical care Trinity students could expect to receive: 

Students who are ill are at once visited by the Medical Director. In cases of serious illness, the patient may be removed to the Hartford Hospital, where adequate provision is made for students of the college.[9]

There is nothing more on matters of student health. It seems, however, that at least one student would fall ill and be “removed to Hartford Hospital” in accordance with the Handbook’s provisions, one Aubrey King, whose case is examined further infra

As the Tripod would report, the most significant disruption would be that Trinity, specifically its Students’ Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.), were subject to a quarantine in October 1918.[10] The Hartford Courant, too, reported that “members of the Trinity College S.A.T.C. have been ordered to remain upon the college grounds until further notice because of the epidemic of Spanish influenza in the city.”[11] It wasn’t clear if other members of the Trinity community were restricted under the order. Trinity was not alone in taking action: the Courant reported that “Smith College [re]opened Friday after the quarantine caused by the influenza epidemic” and that the Loomis School had five cases and closed for a week.[12] However, the Board of Trustees make no reference to the Trinity quarantine nor do they discuss it at their October meeting. It seems not to have been especially important to Luther. 

Instead, the first and only statement on the matter from the Board arises from President Luther indirectly, who in his June 20, 1919 report contends that the College had “been marked by general unrest, misunderstandings, complaints, schemes looking toward reforms not greatly different from revolution.” Luther suggests that much of this “probably arises from or is a part of the general uneasiness throughout the world – an uneasiness which manifests itself in all sorts of ways, from dynamite bombs to petitions addressed to the Trustees.”[13] He offers no suggestion of what precisely that “uneasiness” is, presumably encompassing the Great War and the pandemic, and he also offers no statement of the College’s responses to remedy that unease.  

The “petitions” he references, introduced during the height of the pandemic, include one circulated to the Trustees by alumni regarding an amendment to campus residency policies, which seem in part tied to Spanish or “foreign” influence. The petition proposed that students of “alien birth” or those of “fathers [who] were of alien birth” reside on-campus, under College purview, for their first two years in the interest of “Americanization” and the protection of the community. While ambiguous at times in its stated objectives, the reasons for the proposal’s introduction may well have been in response to the fear that foreigners residing off-campus, beyond the authority of the College, posed a threat to the general welfare of Connecticut. Interestingly, the Board’s General Advisory Committee seems to have been rather forward-thinking, ruling against the alumni petition and determining that “it is not advisable to recommend any modification of this rule at present.”[14]

Even with these veiled allusions, the first and only time the word “influenza” is explicitly stated in any official College publication is the January 1919 bulletin from the S.A.T.C., where the College references the quarantine and illness among the S.A.T.C. broadly:  

Trinity very largely escaped the first epidemic of influenza, but later a considerable number of men were isolated or confined in the hospitals on account of what may or may not have been real influenza. Again the orders from Washington discharging men at various times all through the month of December naturally broke up many classes.[15]

The College’s budget of June 18, 1920 affords insight into the medical preparedness of Trinity: there was $50.00 allocated for “medical supplies” and $3,500 and $1,800 apportioned for the salaries of a Medical Director and Assistant Medical Director, respectively.[16] The medical positions had been in place as early as 1909, when the College underwent a different “epidemic of Influenza and Conjunctivitis which prevailed during February and March.”[17] Trinity had the same campus doctor in 1909 as it did in 1918: “Doctor Swan” or Horace Cheney Swan, also a Professor of Physical Education, oversaw campus health. In his greatest moment before the Board, he seems to have admonished the College for not taking steps to “fill at least partially the unsightly and unhygienic pit in the southwest corner of campus.”[18]History leaves uncertain the question of when and if this “unsightly pit” was dealt with. 

Aside from the S.A.T.C. incident, the College’s Board also saw a Trinity churchman and fellow Trustee called to action. The Right Reverend Ernest Milmore Stires, D.D.’01, was an Episcopal priest and later the 3rd Bishop of Long Island. In 1920, Stires tendered his resignation from the Board of Trustees in what appears to have been a response to his duties serving on a committee of appointments for the Episcopal Church beset by influenza concerns. The Board never acted upon his proffered resignation and Stires appears to have remained on the Board.   

Stires penned his letter to the Board on May 25, 1920, remarking that it has “been a keen disappointment to me that the inflexible character of previous engagements have so far prevented my attendance upon the meetings of the Trustees of Trinity College. Although I dreaded such conditions when I accepted the distinction of election, yet I never dreamed that the fact would be more serious than my fear.”[19] Those “previous engagements,” which prompted Stires to miss board meetings in 1919, are illumined in the Journal of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Stires served on a “Joint Commission on the Proposed Amendment to the Constitution Providing for the Election and Consecration of a Suffragan Bishop for a Province.” That commission, the Journal reports, was also responsible for procedure in appointments and consecrations generally and, “on account of the epidemic of Influenza prevailing,”[20]ultimately delayed the consecration of the Rev. Henry Beard Delany, D.D., Suffragan Bishop-elect for North Carolina. 

The crisis, if it were ever considered by the College a crisis at all, had abated by June 17, 1921, at least in the eyes of newly elected President Remsen Brinckerhoff Ogilby. He was pleased to report that while “two studensts [sic] have left college on account of injury and illness…on the whole the health of the student body has been good. We have had not epidemics of any kind.”[21] Interestingly, the College’s budget proposal for 2022 makes no mention of “medical expenses” nor does it appear to have retained the positions of medical director and assistant medical director.  

Losses ’Neath the Elms: Alumni Deaths Reported in the College’s Bulletin

The Trinity College Bulletin, an early compendium of our modern Reporter and the College’s present curricular Bulletin, cited several alumni deaths as a result of the influenza. 

The Bulletin’s necrology for 1918-1919 reported the deaths of five alumni, the most prominent of which was William James Hamersley ’09 of Old Saybrook, late of Hartford. Hamersley was a Hartford attorney for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, a state representative in the Connecticut legislature, and saw service with the First Connecticut Cavalry on the Mexico border in 1916.[22]

The Bulletin reported that following his service, Hamersley “threw himself into civilian relief work [during the war], especially in connection with the Red Cross” and that his duties “took him to Camp Devens during the epidemic of Spanish influenza.” Camp Devens, in Ayer and Shirley, Massachusetts, was a prominent army training base and became one of the epicenters of the outbreak. Hamersley died on October 12, 1918 after the “influenza developed into pneumonia and pleurisy…[and] his heart failed.”[23] The Hartford Courant described his death as “entirely unexpected as he had apparently practically recovered from both disorders.”[24] The Tripod also reported on Hamersley’s passing, recalling his “steady character and great ability—a fine example of a Christian gentleman and a Trinity man” and noting that he had been Secretary of the Board of Fellows of the College.[25]

Hamersley had a public funeral at Trinity Church, Hartford, with Rev. Robert E. Marshall officiating, despite the pandemic outbreak and the partial quarantine for the S.A.T.C. at Trinity.[26] The Courant reported that President Luther was in attendance and among the pallbearers.[27] Hamersley’s father—William Hamersley, Hon. LL. D. ’58—was a noted Trinity philanthropist and Hartford judge on the Court of Errors (now the Connecticut Supreme Court). Hamersley, Sr. was honored by the College upon his own death two years later in September 1920.[28]

Hamersley was by no means the only Trinity loss, however. Leroy Austin Ladd ’08 of Hartford, late of Phoenix, Arizona, was elected “Chairman of the Commission of State Institutions,” though “immediately after the election…was stricken with Spanish influenza, which developed into pneumonia. After an illness of less than a week, he died November 16, 1918.”[29]

Paul Roebling ’17 of Morris Plains, New Jersey, was the youngest alumnus casualty of the influenza noted in the Bulletin, who on December 13 was “stricken with Spanish influenza and died at Bernardsville, New Jersey December 16, 1918.”[30]

Two Trinity students, sadly, did not see a Commencement as a result of the influenza. Lester Hubbard Church ’20, while serving as a third-class quartermaster on a submarine undergoing repairs in New London, “was stricken with Spanish influenza. This developed into pneumonia and he died September 26, 1918.”[31] Aubrey Gordon King ’22 was the youngest casualty in the Bulletin and the only who seemed to be residing on campus at the time: while still at Trinity, he was “taken ill with Spanish influenza on Tuesday, November 19, and died at the Hartford Hospital on Sunday, December 2, 1918.”[32] The Ivy, too, reported his death in 1920. Doubtless there remain more alumni whose deaths were not noted in the Bulletin, but the above afford us a sampling of some of those who suffered and died by the pandemic. 

“Now Then-Trinity!”: The Tripod and Student Coverage of the 1918 Pandemic

The Tripod first announced in its October 8, 1918 edition that by an “official order published on Saturday, October 4, all S.A.T.C. men were restricted to the college grounds until further notice as a necessary precaution to prevent possibility of contracting influenza.”[33] The initial order raised appreciable concern as it made no mention of sports, though on October 5 a new order remedied the concern. It announced that sports would be “authorized and encouraged and that although set games would not be allowed on Sunday, it would be permitted to throw and kick ball, except from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., if no excessive noise was made.”[34]

The Tripod, in its November 5, 1918 edition, reported the end of the October quarantine. It reported that “the influenza ban, which had restricted members of the S.A.T.C. [Students’ Army Training Camp] to the college grounds since Oct. 4, was formally rescinded at retreat on Friday.”[35] The Tripod also indicated that there remains, however, “restrictions…on trolley cars and drinking at soda fountains.” The students could still not leave the College’s campus without permission, as the Tripod noted the requirement that individuals must procure passes and are “are required to ‘sign out’” before leaving campus.[36]

There were also impacts on the scholarly pursuits of students. According to the Tripod, the College’s library saw an increase in attendance during the month of October 1918, with 2,750 visits versus 1,609 the year prior. The Tripodaverred that this was “no doubt partly due to the quarantine which has been on all of last month.”[37]

The Tripod also reported that one of the College’s S.A.T.C. members had been stricken with the influenza several months later: in January 1919, Paul de McCarthy had “not yet received his discharge” as he was “at the Hartford Hospital recovering from the Spanish influenza and pneumonia.”[38] Like William Hamersley ’09, McCarthy was serving at Camp Devens in Massachusetts when he fell ill.  

The Tripod also covered briefly the deaths of several alumni, reporting on Hamersley in October 1918,[39] as well as Rev. Robert S. Hooper ’15, who was “stricken with influenza, which quickly developed into a fatal attack of pneumonia” on October 6.[40] Dr. Jerome G. Atkinson, another alumnus, was among the last Trinity men reported to die of influenza according to his obituary in the Tripod in April 1920.[41]

Aside from coverage of the October 2018 quarantine and some scattered obituaries, the Tripod makes no reference to additional actions by the College and no student opinions on the influenza appear to have been expressed in its pages. Student and alumni opinion, rather, seems centered on the Tripod’s “War Fund” and the College’s military readiness. 

Coda: Trinity, Connecticut, and the 1918 Pandemic

Trinity College and its response in 1918 have doubtless only been partially examined by the above. By no means is this an exhaustive reporting of the response and much work remains to be done. It is my hope that when the pandemic concludes and Trinity reopens, a thorough examination of non-digitized materials in the Watkinson’s archives might bear new historical fruit. Certainly, for the Tripod and the Trustees, however, it seems safe to say that save for October 1918, College affairs continued unabated. The technological resources of the time and limitations of transportation made impossible the remote Trinity experience in which we find ourselves today. Nevertheless, similarities abound: my own affinity for the Tripod reminds me that we reported on confirmed cases at Trinity and the circulation of College guidance just as the Tripod did in 1918. I would be remiss to not add that I hope the Tripod of today preserves more of our present moment than the Tripod of yesteryear. 

Further, there is surely much more to be written on the subject of the 1918 pandemic in Hartford and Connecticut broadly. While this brief examination has been limited primarily to Trinity-specific materials, the Courant has a wealth of articles, reporting daily on the subject (some with occasional reference to Trinity), and also has advertisements for alleged “cures” which are of historical interest. In reading over the past month, I have found Gina Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and Catherine Arnold’s Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History to be particularly perspicuous and worth consideration during these uncertain times. 

As we continue apace with our lives during the coronavirus outbreak, the institutional history of our alma matter has much to remind us of as we think about how the present day will be recorded and remembered by the historians of tomorrow. 

Pro Ecclesia et Patria. April 5, 2020. 

[1] The author is indebted to Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department Jeffrey Bayliss for bringing this idea to his attention. The author’s gratitude also lies with the Watkinson Library, Director of Special Collections and Archives Christina Bleyer, and College Archivist and Manuscript Librarian Eric Stoykovich for their helpful suggestions on using and finding materials in the College’s digital archives—BWC

[2] Peter J. Knapp, Trinity College in the Twentieth Century: A History, (Hartford, CT: The Trinity College Press, 2000): 51. 

[3] Ibid., 49; special thanks to Douglas Kim ’87 for bringing this fact to my attention. 

[4] Glenn Weaver, The History of Trinity College: Volume One, (Hartford, CT: The Trinity College Press, 1967) 282-283. 

[5] Ibid., 283

[6] Weaver, History of Trinity College, 286-287. 

[7] Though, interestingly, Weaver does make mention of a postponement of the Washington College Commencement in 1832 as a result of a “cholera epidemic.” The decision was made, said a committee through a notice in the Courant, with regard to the “unfounded alarm of the parents for the safety of their sons in the institution.” Ibid., 62; The Hartford Courant, Jul. 31, 1832. The author is indebted to Eric Stoykovich for bringing this matter to his attention—BWC

[8] Trinity College Trustees, “Trinity College Trustees Minutes, Vol. 3,” Trinity College Board of Trustees Minutes (1823-1967) (1926): 266. 

[9] Trinity College, “Students’ Hand Book of Trinity College, 1916-17,” Trinity College Handbook, Book 48 (1916): 58. 

[10] The Trinity Tripod, Nov. 5, 1918. 

[11] The Hartford Courant, Oct. 9, 1918. 

[12] The Hartford Courant, Oct. 20, 1918. 

[13] Trustees, “Trinity College Trustees Minutes, Vol. 3,” 323. 

[14] Ibid., 345. 

[15] Trinity College, “Trinity College Bulletin, January 1919 (Students’ Army Training),” Trinity College Bulletin, Book 72 (1919): 9-10. 

[16] Trustees, “Trinity College Trustees Minutes, Vol. 3,” 371. 

[17] Ibid., 12. 

[18] Trustees, “Trinity College Trustees Minutes, Vol. 3,” 12. 

[19] Ibid., 378. 

[20] The Episcopal Church, Journal of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, (New York: Abbot Press, 1920): 18, 72. 

[21] Trustees, “Trinity College Trustees Minutes, Vol. 3,” 397. 

[22] Trinity College, “Trinity College Bulletin, 1918-1919 Necrology,” Trinity College Bulletin, Book 74 (1919): 40. 

[23] Ibid. 

[24] The Hartford Courant, Oct. 19, 1918. 

[25] The Trinity Tripod, Oct. 15, 1918. 

[26] The Hartford Courant, Oct. 15, 1918. 

[27] Ibid. 

[28] Trustees, “Trinity College Trustees Minutes, Vol. 3,” 386-387. 

[29] Trinity College, “Trinity College Bulletin, 1918-1919 Necrology,” 36-37. 

[30] Trinity College, “Trinity College Bulletin, 1918-1919 Necrology,” 48.  

[31] Ibid., 54. 

[32] Ibid., 56. 

[33] The Trinity Tripod, Oct. 8, 1918.

[34] Ibid.  

[35] The Trinity Tripod, Nov. 5, 1918. 

[36] Ibid. 

[37] The Trinity Tripod, Nov. 19, 1918. 

[38] The Trinity Tripod, Jan. 14, 1919. 

[39] See note 24, supra

[40] The Trinity Tripod, Oct. 29, 1918. 

[41] The Trinity Tripod, Apr. 20, 1920. 


Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours