After 1918 flu pandemic, KU chancellor’s intervention might have kept homesick student from leaving

photo by: Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History

A quickly constructed hospital on the University of Kansas campus housed the influx of patients coming down with Spanish influenza in the fall of 1918.

During the fall of 1918, World War I was raging in Europe and students at the University of Kansas were fighting their own battle with Spanish influenza.

The Kansas Board of Health shut the university down for five weeks because of the outbreak.

According to a proclamation that ran on the front page of the Oct. 8, 1918 Daily Kansan, the university was shuttered; however, students were “forbidden to leave Lawrence – to do so would help spread the infection.”

Among the sick was freshman Kathryne Cretcher, from Scott City. Her father, L.W. Cretcher, a state legislator and owner of a lumber company, wrote to Chancellor Frank Strong, telling him that his daughter was in the university hospital with the flu. He was concerned because she had written saying that once she was well, she wanted to return home and not finish the school year.

photo by: Contributed photo by Russell Herrell, grandson of Kathryne Cretcher

Kathryne Cretcher was going to drop out of the University of Kansas after coming down with Spanish influenza. However, Chancellor Frank Strong talked her into staying in college. This photo, date unknown, shows Cretcher with a cat.

L.W. Cretcher’s letter is on display in the Spencer Research Library in a special exhibit. He wrote Strong that this was his daughter’s first time away from home and she must have been feeling homesick. Cretcher asked the chancellor to please contact Kathryne and convince her to remain in school, but he wanted to be sure Strong did it without Kathryne knowing her father had requested the visit.

Related story

50th anniversary exhibit highlights gems of KU’s Spencer Research Library

Meanwhile, the proclamation ordered students to go to bed immediately on developing symptoms of any illness and to inform the University Hospital or their physician if they were feeling ill.

“This is a patriotic duty. You are on your honor. Prompt compliance will, we hope, prevent any serious epidemic in Lawrence,” the proclamation read.

Students, as well as hundreds of officers in the Student’s Army Training Corps housed on campus because of the war, were filling up the university hospital. A temporary hospital was quickly built on campus.

The Journal-World reported that the flu also hit Haskell Institute, where several hundred students were sick.

Along with the schools, all theaters, churches, pool halls and clubs in Lawrence were closed. People were to avoid crowds.

Two days after the proclamation, the Journal-World reported that 400 to 500 students violated the first order and went home.

By Oct. 23, 1918, spinal meningitis and scarlet fever was breaking out as an after-effect of influenza. Also, the Journal-World reported that Lawrence was wiped out of its supply of Vicks VapoRub, with a warning for residents to conserve what they had.

The flu subsided and the university reopened on Nov. 11, the day WWI ended. By then, as many as 750 students and officers had been ill at once, and 22 students and 10 S.A.T.C. members had died, according to information displayed at the Spencer Research Library.

However, Kathryne Cretcher was still in the hospital. Strong wrote to her saying he had learned she was seriously thinking of going home for the rest of the year once she was well.

photo by: Contributed photo by Russell Herrell, grandson of Kathryne Cretcher

Kathryne Cretcher is in the middle of the photo with her classmates from Scott City Community High School.

“I trust that you will not do this unless (it’s) entirely necessary and I would appreciate your calling to see me,” Strong wrote in a letter included in the display.

He also wrote back to L.W. Cretcher on Dec. 3, saying he would do his best to persuade Kathryne to stay in school.

Now, 100 years later, should a parent write to Chancellor Douglas Girod asking for help in convincing their child to remain in school, he said he “would absolutely reach out.”

“I often respond to parents, alumni and students — however, it’s electronically these days,” Girod said. “It’s such a big place; it’s good when they do reach out because it’s easy to get lost.”

Although today’s flu shots might help prevent some outbreaks from occurring, Girod, a medical doctor, said both the university and medical center have a plan should such an epidemic as the 1918 influenza ever break out again.

Strong must have been convincing, because records at the Spencer Research Library show that Kathryne Cretcher returned to school. However, her registration card and transcript both indicate that she did not graduate from KU. They both end with her junior year, 1921.

She continued her education somewhere — however, her grandson Russell Herrell, of Ault, Colo., doesn’t know where she earned her degree.

Back in Scott City, though, she first taught at a one-room schoolhouse. She then taught at Scott City Community High School before moving to Montana, where she taught for more than 20 years.

“I can attest that she held the teaching profession in very high regard,” Herrell said.

Perhaps the seed was planted with the chancellor’s personal intervention, her grandson said.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.