Australian Universities and the Spanish Flu


When hundreds of thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops returned to the Antipodes at the end of the Great War they brought home more than just victory.  Their recovering bodies were also awash with the H1N1 virus which would, erroneously, become known as “Spanish Flu.”

Like today, public health officials in late 1918 and early 1919 made their plans as the pandemic threatened their communities.  Universities were among the impacted institutions.  In North America many university campuses closed for periods of up to a month during October, November and December of 1918.  To not harm the all important varsity sport programs, administrators came up with a novel solution — many intercollegiate contests would be played in empty stadiums.

Across the Tasman, the New Zealand Government announced in mid-November that “Sunday schools, day schools, colleges and universities are closed until further notice”.  Barber shops were the other institutions singled out in the announcement.

Back in North America, many universities extended their Christmas break.  In South Australia, the University of Adelaide adopted the same approach, announcing that the campus would shutdown for all students and staff from December 21 to January 6.

As the first Australian cases emerged in January 1919, Australia’s universities prepared for the approaching academic year.  At Melbourne University the long summer break was seen have helped minimise the expected “dislocation” of the flu.  Many staff and students had already caught the flu and recovered.  Still, it was decided to delay the start of the academic year by a week.

By early April the number of infections was increasing.  On the day 33 citizens of New South Wales died from the virus, the University of Sydney announced that it would cease teaching on April 7 and remained closed until after the Easter break.  The University and not the state had made the decision.  It would be another week before the Government would announce that all schools would close on 14 April.

The day after the first postwar ANZAC Day, the University announced that it had decided to further delay the reopening from April until May 5.  Then, on May 2, and at the direction of the State Government (parliament would not sit till August because of the crisis), the re-opening was further delayed until May 12.

News of the continuing closure of the University did not sit well with all of the students.  “Undergrad” penned a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in complaint at the five weeks of missed lectures — half a term in the 10 week/three term system.  Yes the students could “read text books at home” (though the State Library was also closed) but they did this “without the guidance in this matter which they derive more or less from lectures”.   More importantly, to make up the missed five weeks, vacation periods would be shortened or the academic year extended.  The newspaper reports do not say which decision was finally made though there was significant pressure for the former option because the three week military cadet camps were held over the Christmas holidays.

An investigation of newspapers of the time suggest that while most state school systems in Australia were shutdown for extended periods in 1919, the other Australian universities did not follow the University of Sydney’s example.  This said it was “impossible for university activities to maintain their normal course”. Classes were often suspended because of the illness of academic staff and the inability to find a replacement.  Results were delayed and students started classes not knowing if they had passed their previous studies.  Medical students made up for lost lectures with practical work at hospitals. Clubs and societies simply did not meet.  Unlike the American universities all inter-varsity sport in Australia was cancelled for 1919.

In some states there were pedagogical discussions on how many students could be taught in a room to minimise the risk of infection.  In Tasmania the magic number was six.  In Queensland it was 20. The University of Queensland also contemplated holding exams outdoors to avoid confined spaces.

Back at  University of Sydney, it was announced in June that the upper story of the Women’s College had been converted and was now known as the “influenza flat”.  The “impromptu hospital” would come into operation if the University was closed again.  It was also noted that “senior girl students with experience” would be called upon to become “flu nurses” in the community.  It was not known whether they would be paid the £4.4s a week the predominantly male medical students were being paid by the State Government to support hospitals.

While the pandemic began to wane by late August, its impact persisted till the end of the year. In October the University of Western Australia was reporting that “some disorganisation of examination timetables” had resulted because of illness. At a time when universities in Australia conducted entry examinations, the University of Tasmania afforded students an extra half an hour to complete their exams because of the disruption to their studies and the fact so many had not yet fully recovered from their illness.

The disruption of the Spanish Flu on Australian higher education was significant but quickly overcome.  While 40 per cent of the Australian population succumbed to the flu and 15, 000 would die, by the start of the new 1920 academic year there were no public discussions about the impact the pandemic had had on Australian universities over the previous year.


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