A look back at SF State during the 1918 pandemic

Crowded emergency hospital full of patients and nurses circa 1918

Patients crowd an emergency hospital at Camp Funston in Kansas, thought to be ground zero for the 1918 influenza pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

University archivist explores how SF State responded to ‘the Spanish Flu’

To most of us, the disruption caused by COVID-19 feels unprecedented. Not to historians, however. They are acquainted with pandemics of the past, including the worldwide influenza outbreak that claimed millions of lives toward the end of World War I. We asked University Archivist Meredith Eliassen to take a look back at how San Francisco State reacted — and changed — during that catastrophe a century ago.

What would come to be called “the Spanish Flu” arrived in San Francisco on a train carrying passengers from Chicago on Sept. 23, 1918. It soon spread through the city like wildfire. While local government was slow to respond, San Francisco State Normal School (as SF State was known at the time) took action.

The influenza pandemic was hitting children the hardest, so SF State began developing programs in physical education and hygiene to train future teachers to look after the physical needs of students in diverse — and vulnerable — communities. Members of the SF State community also planted “victory gardens” — small vegetable, fruit and herb gardens that lessened demands on the food supply system. And they likely volunteered for the Red Cross, as was common for SF State students during World War II a few years later, and (like some Gators today) made masks for family members and health care workers.

At the time, the SF State campus was at Haight and Buchanan streets in the southern portion of the Western Addition. Just a few years before, however, SF State almost moved to the California Building in the Presidio. But the Board of Trustees rejected that plan: The Presidio was overflowing with troops at the time, and it was deemed improper to put the school’s then-all female student body in such close proximity to so many males. Had the plan to relocate gone through, SF State faculty and students would have been barred from campus three weeks after the virus came to the city, as the Presidio was closed to civilians. Because it remained at its site in the center of San Francisco, SF State was blocks from the emergency flu hospital operated by Navy corpsmen at the Civic Center — where, in a move that will sound familiar today, the city issued orders to the public to wear masks and avoid social contact.

By the time the pandemic petered out in San Francisco in early 1919, nearly 45,000 city residents would be infected and 3,000 would die — a toll on par with fatalities from the 1906 earthquake and fire. Soon afterward, acting on the grim lessons of the pandemic, SF State founding President Frederic Lister Burk hired Dr. Edna Loch Barney as the school’s first physician. Barney would oversee programs related to the health and welfare of students while expanding the school’s health and nursing curricula.