The Way Back: Temperature Rising

By 1918, the Forty Acres had been turned into a quasi-military installation as World War I raged on. But that was the least of students’ worries; the so-called Spanish flu (which actually may have originated in Kansas) had swept across the globe and was now paying a visit to campus. Classes were postponed for weeks on end, student barracks were converted into hospital wards, and the football season was wrecked. In October, the city of Austin mandated that all businesses close for 30 days. In November, the university tried to open back up, but a second wave hit the city. The fall semester was, for all intents and purposes, canceled before Thanksgiving.

But by the spring of 1919, life began to slowly return to normal. The war had ended. While some students died during the pandemic—the exact number is not known—40 million had perished worldwide; campus was spared the worst of it. The university reopened, with social distancing strategies in place. Plates and cutlery were boil-washed. Classrooms were aired out every night and between lectures. Large gatherings were discouraged and students had their temperatures taken daily. The female students and faculty who took the lead in these public health initiatives were celebrated for their efforts alongside the soldiers who were returning from duty in France and Germany. As we struggle to come to terms with COVID-19, perhaps we can find some solace in knowing that Longhorns have been through this before.

Photograph courtesy of the Briscoe Center for American History.



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