October 5, 2021 — The University of North Dakota held its last class of 1918 in this week, ending the fall semester early. Although classes were to be cancelled for a single day, the devastation of the Spanish flu led to the closure of most schools and universities until 1919.

Best known as the Spanish influenza, the virus that overran the globe in 1918 actually originated somewhere in East Asia in the spring of 1918. The misnomer resulted from its subsequent reemergence in Spain that fall. The spring virus was strange enough, striking and killing younger adults at a much higher rate than usual. This trend, however, was not recognized at first due to the lack of communication and resources during World War I. The spring virus subsided by early summer, but reappeared in August in multiple places simultaneously. By this time, it had mutated to “an exceptionally lethal variation.” Since Spain was the first to report its devastating effects, it became known worldwide as the Spanish influenza. Between 30 and 50% of the world’s population contracted the second virus, and 60% of those would perish, sometimes within 24 hours of initial exposure.

The flu first arrived in North Dakota on September 14, when a Marine home on leave in New Rockford fell ill; within days, the town had 75 cases. Fargo reported 125 cases on October 6, but by October 9, this number had jumped to 2,000. The rapid spread of the virus left little time for planning or containment. On October 7, UND decided to suspend classes for October 8, but so many took ill, it was decided to keep students home to avoid any further transmissions.

Schools, churches, and businesses were also closed, and public gatherings were banned. By the second week of October, nearly 6,000 cases were reported in the state. Although the official death toll was reported to be around 1,400, many health officials believe it was closer to 3,200. Around 70% of these were between the ages of 18 and 35. By the first snows that winter, the flu had subsided as quickly as it had come. Today, UND is considered to have been the hardest-hit university in the entire nation.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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