Influenza Comes to Throop

📺 Peter Sachs Collopy, Caltech, June 11, 2020

Like many institutions, Throop College of Technology confronted the 1918 flu in the context of mobilization for World War I. Indeed, throughout the United States and Europe, the context of war shaped people’s experience of the epidemic so deeply that after, many only described or wrote about the disease as an aspect of wartime.

I’ll begin, then, with the story of World War I at Throop. In 1908, Throop’s board of trustees, including astrophysicist George Ellery Hale, recruited James A. B. Scherer to be the college’s third president. Scherer was a Lutheran minister and historian of Japan who had previously served as president of Newberry College in South Carolina, where he had developed an engineering curriculum, as Throop’s board hoped he would at their college.

World War I began in 1914, but under President Woodrow Wilson the United States maintained neutrality. Scherer’s personal experience of the war was deeply shaped by his identity as an “American of German descent” (he rejected the hyphenate “German-American”) and as a Lutheran minister. Scherer had grown up admiring Germany, but when he visited in 1907, he found the experience disillusioning. Rather than the spiritual culture “of Luther and Goethe and Beethoven,” wrote Scherer, he found “a marvelous but soulless machine,” a modern industrial society. The war, he later believed, was the result of the unchecked ambition of the German state. “Since the spring of 1916,” he wrote, “I have postponed my pacifism indefinitely, and devoted such strength as I have to the cause of civilisation against Germany.”1

Scherer’s personal conviction matters for the history of Throop, and the college’s experience of the flu, because he brought the institution along with him. In summer 1916, Scherer attended a military training camp in Monterey, California.2 That September, Throop began offering military training in its curriculum. Scherer’s initial plan was for these courses to be optional, but 80% of the students—all men since Throop had stopped admitting women in 1910—petitioned the administration to make them compulsory. “The Throop College Battalion,” wrote one of the first historians of Caltech, Imra Buwalda, “became the first ROTC unit in southern California and the first for engineers in the country.”3

In April 1917, the US entered the war. Scherer attempted to establish an intensive summer military training camp at Throop in 1917, but had to abort his efforts when, a week before training was to begin, the War Department denied requests for weapons and instructors.4

On October 1, 1918, all Throop students became enlisted soldiers under the Students Army Training Corps. By this point, Throop was not unusual in its mobilization for the war effort; 524 other colleges became SATC camps the same day.5 Nonetheless, SATC requested Throop enroll more students than it had, leading to a near-doubling from 189 to 340 enrolled; to supplement the buildings already standing on campus—Pasadena Hall, Gates Laboratory of Chemistry, and a dormitory—the Army began building a mess hall and three barracks, and temporarily housed students in a large circus tent. Several Army officers were assigned to the campus to train them as infantrymen and military engineers.6

We now have to context to understand what Throop was like during the flu epidemic of 1918, and in particular how the work of students and physical arrangement of the campus were different from any before or since.

A week into this new arrangement, the first cases of influenza were reported in Pasadena. According to Pasadena City Health Officer Stanley P. Black, the virus came to Pasadena not from Los Angeles—where cases had appeared a few weeks earlier—but with “a woman who arrived a few days ago from the East,” who then infected her family and physician.7

The disease soon arrived at Throop as well. As students wrote in their yearbook,

The first men to fall before the disease were sent to the Pasadena Hospital, but the facilities there were soon over-crowded, and the necessity of equipping our own hospital was apparent. It was at this time that the Red Cross came to our aid.… From October 11th to October 19th a steady stream of hospital supplies flowed from the Red Cross headquarters, in the old Throop Institute buildings, to our hastily improvised hospitals.8

Around October 17, the college’s military commanders decided to send all students home, only to receive orders from Washington a few hours later prohibiting them from issuing passes or furloughs. “As a result,” reported the Los Angeles Evening Herald, “a large number of students who had already left the college were recalled, some of them from as far away as San Diego.… No quarantine will be placed on Throop College, and parents will be allowed to visit their sons. But none of the students will be issued passes or allowed off the grounds during the epidemic.”9

“The influenza epidemic,” wrote students, “completely demoralized the routine of the post, as it was necessary to suspend all class work, and most of the formations, during the quarantine period. At one time, there were over eighty men in the dormitory, which had been turned into a hospital.” Twelve nurses, all women, staffed the hospital. In an effort to raise morale, the YMCA organized film screenings three nights a week in a tent; according to electrical engineering professor Royal Sorensen, a fellow engineering professor operated the projector and “passed the hat after each movie in order to rent another film.”10

Meanwhile, outside of campus the city of Pasadena passed a number of ordinances to slow infection. “The Crown City,” commented the L.A. Times, permitted outdoor gatherings “provided those present are seated at least two feet apart.”11

In 1978, Alice Stone of the Caltech Women’s Club interviewed several women who had been part of Throop in these early years. Among them was Elizabeth Swift, who had served as assistant to the secretary in 1918.

Three students, all freshmen, passed away within a period of a few weeks: chemistry major John B. Drive on October 26, general engineering major John Perham Webster on November 1, and chemistry major Russel David Forney on November 13.12

Meanwhile, World War I’s armistice came on November 11. According to Sorenson, “most of Pasadena headed for Marengo and Colorado Streets to join the unorganized but orderly parade which continued for hours. Some had their masks as required by law, but they were off the face hanging by a loop over one ear.”13 As far as I can tell, Pasadena hadn’t actually legislated mask-wearing—that came a couple months later—but one of the challenges in history is that memory is fallible.

As the disease subsided, campus returned to action by November 21, when Throop held its first assembly of the term.14 With the war over, SATC dissolved and the college became a civilian institution again.

As in many places, though, the flu had a second wave at Throop. In the new year of 1919, the institution suspended classes from January 18 to February 3. Pasadena began requiring masks in public on January 18 as well. On January 20 a fourth student died: Warren C. Mansur, a sophomore mechanical engineering major.15

In some ways, it was immediately after this traumatic period that the history of Caltech as we know it today began. In 1919, chemist Arthur Amos Noyes resigned his position at MIT and came to Throop full-time. In 1920, after spending much of a year on leave due to depression and nervous breakdowns, President Scherer oversaw the institution’s renaming as the California Institute of Technology, then resigned. He went on to work as a screenwriter, as president of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and as a guide offering tours of Asia, while publishing books on the histories of both Japan and California. In 1921, physicist Robert A. Millikan also came to Caltech full-time, replacing the presidency with the role of Chairman of the Executive Council, which he would hold for 24 years.

  1. James A. B. Scherer, The Nation at War (New York: George H. Doran, 1918), 14–18. 

  2. Scherer, Nation at War, 28. 

  3. Imra W. Buwalda, “The Roots of the California Institute of Technology III,” Engineering and Science, December 1966, 19. 

  4. Buwalda, “Roots,” 19. 

  5. Buwalda, “Roots,” 22; Advisory Board, Committee on Education and Special Training: A Review of Its Work During 1918 (Washington: War Department, 1919), 31. 

  6. The Throop Tech (Pasadena: 1919), 40; James A. B. Scherer, “The President’s Ninth-Tenth Annual Report,” Throop College Bulletin 28, no. 83 (May 1919): 14–15. 

  7. “Influenza Breaks Out in Pasadena,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1918; “Los Angeles, California,” in American Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919: A Digital Encyclopedia, ed. J. Alex Navarro and Howard Markel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2016). 

  8. Throop Tech, 48. 

  9. “Furloughs Recalled and Cadets Return to Camp at Throop,” Los Angeles Evening Herald, October 17, 1918. 

  10. Throop Tech, 40, 46, 48; Royal Sorensen, quoted in Buwalda, “Roots,” 22. 

  11. “The Two-Foot Rule,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1918. 

  12. Scherer, “President’s Ninth-Tenth Annual Report,” 14–15; Throop Tech, frontmatter. 

  13. Sorensen, quoted in Buwalda, “Roots,” 22. 

  14. James A. B. Scherer to Arthur Fleming, November 21, 1918, 1918 file, Outgoing Correspondence subseries, Correspondence series, James A. B. Scherer Papers, California Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections; Scherer, “President’s Ninth-Tenth Annual Report,” 14–15. 

  15. Buwalda, “Roots,” 22; Scherer, “President’s Ninth-Tenth Annual Report,” 14–15; Throop Tech, frontmatter. 

Subjects: Caltech, education, medicine, universities
Category: presentations