The Shipley Magazine

From the Archives: Shipley and the Spanish Influenza

Trina Vaux '63
When Alice Howland and Eleanor Brownell (the Hownells) were considering taking over the Shipley sisters’ school, Eleanor’s father, Silas, assessed their chances. They would probably do well, he told them, so long as there was no “war, famine, or pestilence.”

From June through October of 1916, in the Hownells’ first full year in charge of the School, a polio epidemic, then called infantile paralysis, ravaged the Northeast, with Pennsylvania hit especially hard. The Board of Health ordered the school closed until late November.

The following winter, there was a coal shortage and food prices “soared to almost famine proportions,” Eleanor related. In April, the U.S. joined the European war. Thus, within their first years, “we met war, famine, and pestilence.” There was more to come.

In June of 1918, the first cases of what was to become an even worse pestilence, the Spanish Influenza, appeared at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, percolating there through the summer, and moving to the civilian population in September. 

Philadelphia was ripe for devastation from disease. The hospitals were short-staffed, as medical personnel were serving at the war front in Europe. With large populations newly migrated from Europe and the South, there were housing shortages and deficiencies in sanitation. The city already had serious problems with tuberculosis and pneumonia.

From late September to early November, in a population of two million, half a million got the virus and 12,000 died. Hospitals, morgues, and cemeteries were overwhelmed. Temporary hospitals were established, staffed by volunteers. “The life of the city had almost stopped,” wrote a Penn medical student. Ultimately, the death toll in Philadelphia was higher than all other cities in the U.S. and 360 percent higher than the average American city.

Out in Bryn Mawr, the opening of school was delayed until November 4. The fall sports season was severely limited. The elections of officers of some clubs were never held. The students, who had been sewing for French war relief, took up their needles to make masks and aprons for medical personnel in Philadelphia hospitals. By then, with the introduction of a vaccine, the death toll had diminished significantly. The European war ended in November, the school year continued in normal fashion, and Shipley, having survived war, famine, and pestilence, flourished for another 23 years under the Hownells’ direction.

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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.