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!):