In 1957, the second of three 20th Century influenza pandemics hit the United States (the others started in 1918 and 1968).
The 1957 flu was a novel strain of the influenza virus subtype H2N2 and was called the “Asiatic” or “Asian” flu because it had started in Hong Kong. Emanating from a recombination of avian flu (probably from geese) and human flu virus, this bug reached the U.S. by summer and worked its way up the East Coast, hitting college campuses especially hard.
There was little immunity to this flu in the U.S. population because there was no vaccine available until later in the year. Although many children contracted it, their mortality rate was extremely low. Those most susceptible were pregnant women, the elderly, and those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions.
The 1957 flu is estimated to have killed between 1 and 2 million worldwide, maybe more. The toll in the United State was estimated as between 70,000 and 116,000. It may have infected as many victims as the 1918 flu, but improved health care over four decades, the invention of antibiotics, and the eventual availability of a vaccine resulted in a far lower mortality rate. To put this in some context, roughly 90,000 deaths in the U.S. so far this year are estimated to have resulted from Coronavirus, and the country is twice as populous as it was in 1957. Nobody can be sure what the final toll will be, but it’s got a ways to go to match the percentage of the population afflicted by the 1957 pandemic.
And, yes, the Dow Jones lost 15% of its value in the last half of 1957.
What was the impact of the flu on schools, colleges and universities, and how did they deal with it?
At all-male Princeton University in New Jersey, one quarter of the undergraduates and 10% of the graduate students were affected. The college infirmary was filled to capacity with 150 patients by Oct. 15, with spillover into a cafeteria and library, where 100 beds were set up and 20 Red Cross nurses rushed in to provide care. Nobody died, but periodic surges extended to mid-November, when a vaccine finally reached campus. 1,176 students got a shot, at a cost of $1 apiece. By Thanksgiving, the flu was gone.
Seven miles down the road was The Lawrenceville School, one of the nation’s largest secondary schools for both boarders and day students. Like most such institutions at the time, it was not co-ed; it was for boys only.
Surprisingly, the campus newspaper, The Lawrence, printed only one article that autumn (in the Nov. 1, 1957, issue) about the impact of the flu on Lawrenceville. This despite the fact that the campus was hard hit, although there were no deaths. Two varsity football games were cancelled (against nearby rivals Peddie and Blair), and other fall sports squads were decimated by the virus.
The single Lawrence piece was written in colorful fashion by the late, inimitable Charles G. “Grubber” Young, grandnephew of the cosmetics queen, Elizabeth Arden, who was subject of a smash Broadway musical just three years ago, Warpaint.
Young went on to a successful 35-year career as a commercial pilot with Northwest Airlines. In the fall of 1957, however, he was a 17-year-old student reporter at a time when Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday and TV’s “Dragnet” were at the apogee of their popularity.
Here is “Grub” Young’s brief article in its entirety, under the headline and sub-head INFLUENZA STATISTICS RELEASED AS NUMBER OF CASES DECREASES/Reporter, Merely Seeking Story, Gets First-Hand Impression Of Mysterious Disease:
“My name’s Grub, Grub Young. I’m a reporter. My assignment: Get the story on the flu epidemic.
Friday, October 25th: It was late in the afternoon when I first entered the infirmary and started questioning the staff. There had been no sign of the elusive flu since early that afternoon. I was just about to leave when all of a sudden something hit me in the back of the head, and I sank slowly onto the hard wooden bench in the dispensary.
At last I had made contact with the flu; it’d snuck up behind me, clobbered me on the head, and from there worked down my spinal column until I knew exactly what other victims meant when they described themselves as feeling “gleh.”
This was my chance to get an inside story so I played along with the flu and Dr. Light by cancelling my weekend plans and retiring to the infirmary. I remained there several days questioning and cross-questioning the nurses and the help. They were too scared to talk.
DR. LIGHT TALKS
After I had been there quite some time, Dr. Light came bouncing into my room one morning and announced that the flu must have gone back to Asia, or at least to Outer Mongolia, ’cause there hadn’t been a trace of it since it had clobbered me.
Then he broke down, for at last he was free to talk. He gave me the facts I had been groveling for. He told he predicted that the flu would first make its appearance here at the School on October 14th, a Monday. The Doc said he had predicted this date because of the tea dances and the Mercersburg game the previous Saturday, coupled with the fact that Monday the 14th was the end of a marking period.
He foretold right. The peak of the epidemic was quickly reached (on the 19th), but the ensuing week of the 21st was the most hectic. The infirmary was always full, and overflowing. This shows the broadness of the epidemic, for the infirmary can hold up to 47 patients when it has extra beds.
The houses were full of buggy boys, some 50 in number at a high point, and 20 or 30 students who lived near school were sent home to be nursed back to health. Tests from the state lab showed that the epidemic was due to “the Asian strain of type A influenza.”
The 26th marked the beginning of the end for this type A influenza. The old Asian strain was losing its virulence. By the 28th there were only five boys left in the infirmary, but the staff hasn’t put away the needles or the forceps quite yet, for there is quite a high degree of recurrence within a ten-day period following infection.
Here’s some medical advice: if you’ve had the flu, and you get up one morning, shower, and suddenly get that “gleh” feeling, go see the Doc.”
Not exactly a scientific treatise on a dread disease, but “Grubber” sketched out the human side of the epidemic’s effect on a school campus.