Baylor's response to epidemics over the years

Before COVID-19, Baylor University successfully overcame a number of campus epidemics

Baylor's response to epidemics over the years

The COVID-19 pandemic that swept over the world in the spring of 2020 was not the first time that Baylor University has had to respond to a major health crisis on campus. A quick look back at Baylor history shows that the University has been overcoming times of sickness and disease since its earliest days.

Spanish Influenza

The most lethal epidemic in America since Baylor’s founding in 1845 was the so-called Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, which killed an estimated 17 to 50 million people worldwide –– at least 500,000 of those in the United States. Overall, an estimated 500 million people were infected.

Many of the Spanish flu deaths in Waco occurred at Camp Mac Arthur, a U.S. Army training facility on the edge of town. Waco officials resisted calls for a quarantine until October 1918 –– the peak of the pandemic in the United States, when 195,000 Americans died in a month. For 10 days in October, Waco mayor Ed McCullough closed public schools, movie houses and all other forms of public gatherings for safety. Churches and private schools such as Baylor, however, were given the choice to close or not.

Despite the city’s actions, Baylor officials chose not to cancel or even postpone most events –– continuing with classes, chapel services, public lectures, concerts and sporting events. Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks said in October 1918 that the University would of course close if ordered to, or if increased illness prompted it, but noted there had been only a few cases of influenza among students, and many of those infected were “improving rapidly.”

It was estimated that only 5 percent of Baylor students came down with Spanish influenza, and most of those recovered. One reason for that good result was that campus prevention efforts and treatment proved successful. In fact, Baylor nurse Gladys Cavitt received a Red Cross award for her lifesaving care given in the women’s infirmary in Burleson Hall during the pandemic.

But while Baylor avoided the worst ravages of the pandemic, it was not unaffected, as a close reading of the Lariat shows. While not always identifying the illness involved, the campus newspaper has frequent mentions of professors getting sick and postponing classes, students recovering from a serious illness, and students and employees attending the funerals of family members.

There are also stories of graduates and former Baylor students falling sick or dying. One was Leslie David Christian, who left Baylor in December 1917 to enlist in the Navy. Christian contracted pneumonia during training in Illinois and died three months later, becoming the first person from Baylor to die in uniform in World War I.

Current students were not immune from death. B.B. McAfee was a member of Baylor’s Student Army Training Corps, which prepared students for military service. Three days after arriving on campus in late September 1918 he became ill with the Spanish flu and died two weeks later.

On Nov. 16, 1918, freshman Bernice Pruitt joined hundreds of Baylor students cheering on the Bears at the Baylor-SMU football game in Dallas. She contracted influenza in Dallas, and five days later she was dead.

The Spanish flu also altered the life of future Baylor president Abner McCall, who was three years old in December 1918 when his father died from the virus after tending to his sick Masonic brothers. A few years later, the struggle to make up for that loss of the family breadwinner broke the health of McCall’s mother, and prompted her to place him and his three siblings in the care of the Masonic Home orphanage in Fort Worth. However, Abner flourished there academically, becoming the Class of 1933 valedictorian and winning a scholarship to Baylor University.

Other flu outbreaks

While cases of flu among students, faculty and staff are a seasonal occurrence on campus, a few flu outbreaks in Baylor history have resulted in a significant increase in the number and seriousness of cases.

Soon after students returned to campus following the 1940 Christmas holidays, they began falling ill with “influenza, colds and general illness,” causing University officials on Jan. 6, 1941, to announce that chapel services would be discontinued until the situation improved. By Jan. 7, local hospitals had treated a total of 55 students for a variety of complaints, with seven students hospitalized with influenza. Five of the 14 women who had not yet checked in to campus dormitories were also out because of the flu.

Seven more women were admitted to the Baylor Girls’ Hospital on Jan. 8, 1941, and on Jan. 14, the Lariat reported that “Flu still reigns in the girls’ hospital,” with six new cases coming in over the previous weekend. Sixteen men in Brooks Hall dormitory had the flu by that time as well, but had not gone to the hospital.

An even larger outbreak of the flu occurred on the Baylor campus in the fall of 1957. It began in September, with Baylor’s 15-bed campus infirmary being “well-used” by patients. Still, Baylor was faring better than Texas A&M University, where 1,500 students had been hospitalized by Sept. 24.

The Lariat reported on Oct. 1, 1957, that “flu at Baylor [had] reached epidemic proportions,” as registered nurses and a doctor were assigned to the men’s and women’s dormitories, and an emergency telephone extension was added at the campus infirmary.

On that same day, 10 of the students most seriously ill with the flu had been sent to Hillcrest Hospital in Waco, with 50 more students being treated in the campus infirmary and an additional 200 students being treated for flu in the dormitories. Overall, Dr. Monroe Carroll, Baylor provost, announced on Oct. 1 that 15 percent of the women in campus dormitories “have coughs, colds, sore throats and temperature.”

As the flu spread across campus, students were taking more precautions against catching the virus, and “grocery and drug stores [were] selling an unusual amount of fruits and juices and vitamin pills.”

Over the next week, 10 different Waco doctors visited campus to treat students, and class attendance averaged just 80 percent. Oct. 3, 150 women in Collins Hall alone had the flu or flu-like symptoms, with 68 students sick in the Baylor infirmary and 30 students taken to local hospitals. The virus prompted head football coach Sam Boyd to cancel workouts, and chapel services, theatre performances and intramural events were temporarily discontinued. While only physical education courses were the only classes ever canceled, students missing any class were not penalized during the outbreak.

To help treat the rising number of flu cases, 36 beds were added to the Baylor infirmary, bring the total number of beds to 64. Eight nurses and two medical corpsmen were working long hours in the infirmary, while an additional eight nurses were assigned to the dorms.

By Oct. 8, the Baylor flu epidemic was well into decline, with most hospitalized students having been sent home, and few new cases being reported on campus. Class attendance was “near to normal,” and chapel services were resumed Oct. 10.

Measles outbreak is big news

Late in the summer of 1982, a Baylor exchange student from Honduras toured medical mission stations in Central America with his father. When the student arrived back at Baylor for Welcome Week in August, he brought with him to campus a case of 10-day “red” measles (rubeola), which was reported on Aug. 29.

That one case of measles soon became many, with the state health department declaring a rubeola measles epidemic on campus Sept. 18 after 19 possible cases were discovered.

In response, Baylor began offering free measles inoculations in campus gymnasiums, with 6,000 of the 10,000 enrolled students taking part over several weeks. The Waco-McLennan County Health unit also gave free inoculations, as isolated cases began showing up in Waco public schools and other local colleges as well.

The punter on the Baylor football team missed one game with the measles, and the universities Baylor played in football that fall began urging their students who planned to attend Baylor games to be inoculated beforehand to prevent a spread of the disease. During one of those games, a Baylor Line member held up a sign of the times in the stands that read, “Look Mom No Measles.”

The chief medical investigator of the incident, Ron Moellenberg of Austin, said that Waco might have become be the measles capital of the United States, and the Baylor outbreak did prove to be the biggest case reported in the U.S. for the year.

Eventually, the number of cases began decreasing on campus, and by mid-October Baylor officials said the cases were dwindling, with the second wave of measles not as strong as predicted. During its run, the 1982 epidemic sent 165 Baylor students to the Health and Counseling Center with 100 confirmed measles cases.

Other outbreaks

Over the years, Baylor officials have had to defend against a number of smaller outbreaks of a variety of diseases on campus.

In the early days in Independence, occasional bouts of yellow fever were a concern. After the move to Waco, outbreaks of smallpox in the city kept University officials on alert, including a 1907 smallpox outbreak on campus that resulted in vaccinations being given to the women residing in Burleson Hall.

The women living on campus were subject to a quarantine in January 1912 after cases of meningitis began showing up in Waco, causing Waco public schools to close for a time.  The campus quarantine lasted a little more than a month, and although it had been successful in preventing student deaths, 59 people had died in Waco by Feb. 10.

Almost a century later in February 2007, meanwhile, Baylor began a series of preventative health measures after doctors confirmed that a male freshman student had been diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis.

While rarely fatal, food poisoning is an occasional occurrence on college campuses from time to time, including at Baylor. In February 1928, 122 female students in Georgia Burleson Hall, as well as visitors and three chefs, came down with ptomaine poisoning after eating in the Burleson dining room. All recovered, but the cause of the outbreak was never established.

In October 1956, Baylor football fans were concerned for a variety of reasons when they learned that all but 10 of the members of the Baylor football team came down with food poisoning a few days before the Homecoming game against Texas A&M. Luckily, the men recovered quickly and the game was able to proceed as scheduled. The game was the first sold out contest in Baylor Stadium history, but the undefeated Bears lost a close one to the Aggies, 19-13.

In the fall of 1978, two Baylor students were diagnosed with Legionnaire’s Disease, an atypical form of pneumonia caused by bacteria found in contaminated water. Fortunately, both Baylor students recovered after treatment.