Before H1N1: St. Thomas’ history with influenza

In 1905, the College of St. Thomas built an infirmary on North Campus, now known as the Alumni and Constituent Relations building. Forty years later, math professor Capt. Thomas Gartland was living on the third floor and found graffiti on the walls. The graffiti listed names of students who had died in the building.

According to an article published in The Aquin on April 6, 1966, Gartland found names like “Spike O’Conner, Scarlet Fever, 1921,” and “Harold O’Brien, Mumps, 1924.” He even found written in a corner, “After three weeks in this place I don’t think anything could be worser.”

Flu-related deaths at St. Thomas

In 1918, there was a worldwide flu outbeak, even hitting close to home at St. Thomas.

In the Dec. 1, 1918, issue of the Purple and Gray Magazine, a memoriam was published for the Rev. Charles A. Jungwirth, who studied at the St. Thomas parochial school, graduated from the College of St. Thomas in 1909 and went on to study at the St. Paul Seminary.

“On November 25, the angel of death took home the soul of Reverend Charles A. Jungwirth, late assistant pastor at Sleepy Eye, Minnesota,” it said. “He was a victim of the influenza and his death resulted after a short illness of a few days.”

The same issue reports that Lt. William H. Murphy died of influenza at his home on Fairmount Avenue while he was on furlough, and that Hugh Scanlan also died on Oct. 5, 1918, while fighting in World War I.

Deaths associated with the 1918 flu, also known as the Spanish flu, were estimated between 50 and 100 million people worldwide from its start in March 1918 until June 1920.

The mother of all flu strains

The 1918 flu outbreak is thought to be the mother of all strains of influenza, according to the Center of Disease Control. Every pandemic flu since the 1918 flu has been a descendant of that virus, called influenza A.

Many people are comparing the H1N1 virus to the 1918 flu because they show similar characteristics. For example, both affect younger people.

“Overall, nearly half of the influenza-related deaths in the 1918 pandemic were in young adults 20–40 years of age, a phenomenon unique to that pandemic year,” according to the CDC Web site.

More than 70 years later

In 1991, there was another strain of the flu that was “especially strong and long lasting,” according to an article printed in the March 1 edition of The Aquin.

The Aquin reported that health services saw 20 to 30 flu-related visits each day. In the story, Elaine Foell, a nurse practitioner at health services, said, “We are seeing whole floors of dormitories coming down with the flu.”

Today’s flu: H1N1

As of Sept. 23, 60 cases of H1N1 have been reported at St. Thomas. Unlike the flu in 1991, Madonna McDermott, director of the Student Health Service and Wellness Center said the majority of cases are from students who do not live on campus. There have been as many as 13 cases reported a day.

Stephani Bloomquist can be reached at