“truthful word paintings . . . of those awful times,” 1878

I’ve been asked several times recently why there is so little evidence of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic at Rice. There isn’t a simple answer. That it took place in the middle of World War I and that the Institute was being run as a military camp has a lot to do with it. Another important piece was the relative frequency of epidemics in those times, some of them truly terrible. Diseases that we routinely vaccinate for today would sweep through communities with sometimes devastating consequences. Diptheria in particular was an awful killer of children, but measles and smallpox epidemics also broke out with alarming frequency.

Houston, with its hot, muggy climate, was for many years especially susceptible to epidemics of mosquito-borne diseases. Of these the most terrifying were the yellow fever outbreaks of the middle and late 19th century. The Woodson has a bound collection of letters and a travel journal written by Kezia DePelchin describing her experiences as a volunteer nurse across the South during the yellow fever crisis of 1878. It’s an extraordinary collection and it’s available on-line in the Rice digital repository.

Here’s the first page (had to screen shot it–technical difficulties!):

Bonus: Doris Williams sends images of beautiful skies over Rice. This one’s my favorite.
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6 Responses to “truthful word paintings . . . of those awful times,” 1878

  1. I recall reading somewhere that the French legation in Houston was paid for hazardous duty until A/C became available…..

    • I remember being told by a representative of the Rice Administration during Freshman Orientation that Houston was a location for which diplomats serving consulates received hazard pay because of its climate. I understood, as my sleeping room was the Handball Court at Wiess College. Air conditioning for dormitories had not yet been invented, I think. A few classrooms were air conditioned, and Fondren Library was air conditioned, but the Architecture Lab in Anderson Hall was not and the Colleges were not.

      My father and his sister lived through the 1918 Flu. Dad was at Fort Bliss (El Paso) as a young US Cavalry Officer learning cavalry horsemanship under Col. George S. Patton at the time. Earlier, he had caught and survived all the standard childhood diseases (mumps, measles, chicken pox, rubella) as well as a bout of typhoid fever. Later, while I was an infant, he picked up malaria in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula where he was building a power plant and transmission lines. My mother’s brother at the same time survived the yellow fever epidemic but succumbed to scarlet fever.

      Next time Houston has a sky like that, I suggest a photo of the Chemistry Building. The “chem trails” overhead would provide photographic irony.

      • Kermit Lancaster, Wiess 1977 says:

        “Handball Court at Wiess College”
        That’s a new one to me. Where was it? Perhaps there was room for a court in the basement, which was a library in the early 1970s and then converted to a laundry and game room.

  2. Matt Patterson (Jones '07, Baker RA 2017 - present) says:

    Folks should probably be aware that the residential areas of campus are currently off-limits to anyone who is not a Rice resident or staff member with actual business in the colleges (e.g. Housing and Dining staff), in order to limit the exposure of students who are still staying here. In other words, the location from which the photo of the Baker tower was taken is one where outside people ought not be standing at present. I hate to be this guy, but if RAs, magisters, and/or RUPD run across people in the designated off-limits spaces, we are asking people to leave.

    • Jeff Ross says:

      And the current signs are being honored. This photo was taken on March 29 before restrictive signs were posted.

  3. Matthew Noall says:

    Thank you for the reminder of how common pandemics were until very recently in the US. A good lesson on how this one too shall pass

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