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How the O'Colly covered the 1918 influenza pandemic

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With its roots extending back to 1895, the O'Colly has covered World Wars, various presidents, the moon landing and one of the worst pandemics in history: the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu.’ 

With COVID-19 cases spiking in Oklahoma, let’s go back in time to 1918 and look at the O’Colly’s-- which was then known as the “Orange and Black”--coverage of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

It’s October 12, 1918. The second wave of the 1918 influenza has sacked the United States and the Orange and Black has released its 5th paper of the fall semester. The entire publication is filled with historic headlines.

“Stillwater has many cases, but (the) situation seems well in hand,”  wrote one Orange and Black writer in 1918. At (Oklahoma A&M), the “flu" crept up more like pneumonia, without a cold preceding to give warning. Scores of cases have already been reported and more are appearing every day. (On) Tuesday, city board health closed all public gathering places requested that no entertainments or gatherings of any sort be held. For once, picture shows will operate church bells summon the populace to worship.”

While the information in this edition was beneficial for the public, the editorial crew of this edition was not satisfied with it-- which was a definite sign of the times. Orange and Black Editor in Chief Martyn B. McMillan was actually infected with the Spanish Flu at the time, which caused one editor to write the following:

“If the Orange and Black this week doesn't meet your approval, blame it on ‘flu.’ The editor is home sick, the business manager (Homer Hirzel) left Wednesday for his home, and most of the staff is trying to keep the flu company. We hope (McMillan) will soon be able to return to his old beat and that Homer's presence hastened his relatives' recovery.”

But thankfully for McMillan and many other Oklahoma A&M students who caught the influenza back then, the school was prepared. 

“Anxious parents need have no fear that their boy or girl is not receiving proper and plenty of care,” the Orange and Black article read. “With the influx Spanish Influenza came a need for the proper care of the sick. At the present time, the president's old home and south wing of the Boys Dormitory have been made into hospitals, and patients are moved in as soon as possible.”

One week later the news got even better for this editorial crew.

In the October 19, 1918 edition of the paper, the headline “influenza losing hold” ran at the top of the page, signifying that A&M was returning back to its normal school schedule.

“The A&M is the only college in the state which has not closed its doors because of the influenza,” the article read. “The splendid work of the Red Cross, the faculty women and the girls has been responsible for this wholesome condition. While the epidemic has touched almost every one in college, with but few exceptions has the period of illness been over four days…. The morale of the student body has been splendid.”

Despite the late October news looking bright for these A&M students, the pandemic still raged on for years. An estimated 17-50 million people died from this virus from 1918-1920. 

Due to its relative recency and status as a respiratory illness, many people compare this pandemic to the current COVID-19 outbreak. Regardless, I think we can all sympathize with Louis Hill, a 1918 A&M student who wrote the following for the Orange and Black:


“I hope the flu is a thing of the past now and that everything is as it used to be,” he said.