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A Look into Andover’s First Pandemic

Courtesy of Paige Roberts

WWI Soldier Training on the Great Lawn in Winter of 1918

Canceled musical performances and club activities. Postponed athletic tournaments and chapel services. A pandemic and major social unrest at national and international levels. Although these circumstances may sound familiar to current Andover students, they were also the reality of Andover students during the 1918 flu pandemic. 

Last spring, Paige Roberts, Director of Archives and Special Collections, researched how the 1918 pandemic impacted Andover. She explained that the virus—specifically, the H1N1 influenza A virus—likely began in Kansas, traveled to Europe with American military troops in the winter of 1918, and arrived in Boston in late August 1918. Between 1918 and 1920, the influenza virus took the lives of 50 to 100 million people around the world, including 675,000 Americans. 

According to “The Atlantic,” people aged 20 to 40 may have comprised around half of those killed by the virus. Roberts noted that despite the risk that the flu presented to students and faculty, Andover remained open throughout the pandemic. During this time, the Andover community suffered no major outbreaks and recorded the death of only one student, George Vose, Class of 1921.

Similar to Andover’s response to Covid-19, campus activities in the fall of 1918 were postponed. Besides these changes, however, the flu pandemic had a relatively minor impact on the Andover community, according to Roberts. In fact, the 1919 “Pot Pourri” and “Mirror,” the student literary magazine, had no mentions of the influenza. The only allusion to the impacts of the flu at Andover was a February 5, 1919, student Letter to the Editor in The Phillipian advocating for increased vacation time.  

“The major difference between 1918 and 2020 is that at the time, they did not know about viruses… Another reason that there was a limited response besides wearing masks was because they just did not understand the disease from a scientific standpoint, yet,” said Roberts.

According to Roberts’s research article on the Andover website, the school’s health record was among the best of New England prep schools during the early and mid twentieth century. Dr. Peirson S. Page oversaw this record in his tenure as both athletic director and medical advisor from 1902 to 1939.

“According to Athletics For All (written by Fred H. Harrison ’38), Page took extremely good care of the boys’ aches, bruises, and minor illnesses and referred very sick students to local physicians or specialists in Boston,” wrote Roberts in her article.

Roberts believes that one of the main factors separating the flu from Covid-19 was the impact of  World War I. According to Roberts, the war both accelerated the spread of the disease and caused governments to be more secretive about the pandemic.

“[There are] probably a few important differences between the influenza at that time compared to the situation now, one of which is a huge issue of World War I. That was a major reason that the United States and other countries didn’t want to talk about the influenza cases that they had because they felt like it would show weakness compared to Germany,” said Roberts. 

In the course of a pandemic and a world war, students and graduates of both Abbot Academy and Andover focused their attention on ways to support their wider communities. Throughout the 1918 flu pandemic, many Abbot graduates worked as nurses, providing care and comfort for those suffering with the disease, and Andover alumni served as soldiers throughout the war. 

As Andover continues to face the Covid-19 pandemic, Suhaila Cotton ’24 looks to the example of Andover and Abbot students who rose to the challenge of a world war and flu pandemic and helped their communities more than a century ago.

“It was inspiring to learn about the courage, bravery, and dedication of Andover’s past students and gave me a greater sense of hope that the Andover community will get through these uncertain times but also help the communities around us,” said Cotton.

For Roberts, it can feel difficult to conceptualize the scale of the flu pandemic in 1918, yet, Roberts finds continuity in Andover’s priorities both then and now.

“Even going way back 100 years, it’s something that everybody is concerned about: the health of students,” said Roberts.