Dr. Steve Noll is a Master Lecturer in History at the University of Florida. In this post, he explains how UF dealt with previous disease outbreaks.

The University of Florida is no stranger to periodic outbreaks of virulent diseases.  Malaria, though not considered a contagious disease since it is transmitted by infected mosquitoes and not by human contact, was a major problem in UF’s early years in Gainesville.  In 1913, for instance, 31 of the 72 student cases seen by University Physician Edward Flint were malaria-related.  Flint was also a professor of science at UF and is the namesake of the building where the offices of UF’s history department are currently located (Keene-Flint Hall).  A 1911 UF MA thesis reported that “Complaints have frequently been made to me by students that the mosquitoes were so thick in the dormitory that they could neither study nor sleep in peace.” The periodic epidemics of malaria were somewhat alleviated by the placement of screen in dormitory windows in 1911 but not fully controlled until a complete drainage system was placed on campus in the 1920s.

The worldwide pandemic of the Spanish Flu hit the UF campus hard in the fall of 1918.  Although accurate numbers are hard to determine, hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators, including President Albert Murphree, fell ill.  So many were sick that a temporary hospital had to be set up in the auditorium of what is today Griffin-Floyd Hall.  At least 3 students and math (and astronomy!) professor Herbert Keppel, then only 52, died of the disease.  An obituary in the Gainesville Sun reveals the tragedy of Keppel’s death:

“during the past summer, he was asked to serve on the national commission to inspect the mathematical teaching offered by war Y.M.C.A.  In connection with this work, he made a trip to Gulfport, Mississippi, and contracted the Spanish influenza there, arriving home seriously ill about a week before his death. His life was one of those which had been sacrificed to the war, since his death was a direct result of exposure and lack of care while on war duty.There is probably no member of the faculty of the University of Florida who was more universally loved than Doctor Keppel.”

While the story of the Spanish flu pandemic, especially in light of the current coronavirus pandemic, has become rather common knowledge, the 1957 Asian flu epidemic is almost unknown.  Yet this disease hit the UF campus very hard in the fall of that year.  It was estimated that 5000 of UF’s 11,000 students came down with this strain of the flu.  Of that number, the infirmary treated almost 3000.  Once again, as in 1918, existing infirmary beds were not enough to handle a large number of sick students and a 200-bed facility was set up on the floor of Florida Gym (this was just before the opening of the Shands Teaching Hospital on campus).  Luckily, it appears no student died in the outbreak though the illness severely stressed the resources of the campus medical staff.  For Gator fans, probably worse was the fact that 65 football players came down with the flu, necessitating the cancellation of the season-opening game in Los Angeles versus UCLA.

The University of Florida and Pandemics