Letters Reveal 1918 Pandemic’s Effect on Wheaton

Portrait of Dr. Helen Emma Wieland Cole, Professor of Classics 1932
Portrait of Dr. Helen Emma Wieland Cole, Professor of Classics 1932

Deep in the Wheaton archives lie the personal letters of professor Helen Wieand Cole describing her experience at Wheaton during the Spanish influenza of 1918. 

“The 1918 pandemic, strangely, left little mark on the campus,” wrote Mark Armstrong,  Wheaton’s archivist and records manager.

Cole’s letters to her sister are the only accounts Wheaton has of the Spanish influenza, aside from a short excerpt in Paul Helmreich’s book, Wheaton College, 1834-1957: A Massachusetts Family Affair, which documented that, “Wheaton had fifty cases of influenza, but none of which proved serious.”

According to Helmreich, Wheaton managed to get along by restricting travel and canceling events, while Attleborough, Taunton, and Brockton felt “severe ravages” of the disease. At one point in Cole’s letters, she mentions that on Sep. 24 Brockton had 3,000 cases and 17 funerals. 

In addition to her duties as a classics professor, Cole was the wife of President Samuel Valentine Cole, giving her the hefty responsibility as an entertainer in the president’s house. During the fall of 1918, Cole wrote five letters to her sister, Irma C. Wieand, while on campus, during the peak of the virus. 

Similar to today, Wheaton had to follow state mandates on event restrictions. Cole stated, “The governor of the state has closed all theatres churches and movies for the next ten days; and has requested that all public gatherings be postponed.” However, to Cole, it was not close contact that threatened the spread of disease, rather the student’s party clothing. She continued, “As we have about forty people sick, we thought it best to not have the party, especially as the girls would wear their low-necked dresses, and run the risk of catching colds.”

Many of Cole’s difficulties during the 1918 pandemic stemmed from her struggles to find help in the kitchen for college events. At the time, hiring new kitchen employees required a trip to Boston, but similar to today, the city was a place to be avoided.

“The epidemic is so bad I am not going to try to get anyone [new workers], for she might also get sick on my hands; and it is safer to stay out of Boston just now.” Cole wrote.

Cole had to pick up extra cleaning tasks as a result of the influenza. She wrote, “I have to clean it [the kitchen], for several of the scrub-women across the street are sick, and they cannot spare anyone to help me; and it is impossible to get anyone in Norton for such work.” Today, the CDC recommends cleaning kitchen surfaces with soap and household bleach, but in 1918, formaldehyde, which we now know causes respiratory problems,  was Cole’s disinfectant of choice.

While on the topic of chemicals, Cole wrote about ingesting calomel, also known as methylene chloride to prevent catching the disease. According to sources provided by Jillian Amaral, Wheaton’s academic technology and sciences librarian, Calomel has now proven to be an incredibly toxic substance. As you can imagine, it was not pleasant to ingest as Cole describes the smell of food, “not appealing very much” after taking the medicine. 

Cole’s letters reveal not just how scientific advancements have debunked misconceptions about disease, but more importantly, the toll the 1918 pandemic took on her personal life. The extra labor was stretching Cole thin. 

Cole wrote, “It is impossible to get an extra nurse. I thought perhaps at a pinch I might help out the nurse: but with all the housework, except cooking, to do, I guess I have my hands full”.

“I guess I have my hands full”

Thank you to all of the Wheaton faculty and staff who during the COVID-19 pandemic have, like Professor Cole, gone the extra mile to support students during a time of crisis. 
You can read Helen Wieand Cole’s letters here.