SJSU Takes on Pandemics 100 Years Apart

The Spanish flu swept across the campus of the San Jose Normal School, now known as San Jose State University, in October 1918. Then, like now, the school took steps to protect the campus community. Students, faculty, and staff volunteered their time and resources to help the campus and the San Jose region weather the pandemic.

According to the June 1919 LaTorre yearbook, the school closed on October 11, reopened a month later, then closed again December 3 for another month. Students were charged with making their own reusable cloth masks and were required to wear them when classes resumed.

The Normal Hospital

San Jose Normal School Students in 1918

Students at the San Jose Normal School wore masks during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Source: 1918 La Torre yearbook, courtesy of SJSU Special Collections and Archives.

Hospitals in San Jose were so overcrowded at the time that the Intermediate Building on campus was converted into The Normal Hospital and a house on 12th Street was rented and made into a convalescent ward. Some 75 volunteer nurses worked at both makeshift hospitals. The Household Arts Department made meals for the patients. Students and faculty volunteered to care for patients; they donated cots, bedding, clothing, food, and flowers.

“One remarkable feature of the Normal School’s response was how its student body, mainly women, volunteered to serve as untrained nurses, literally putting their lives on the line to serve their community,” said History Professor and Director of the Burdick Military History Project Jonathan Roth.

According to the yearbook, the response and outpouring from the campus and the local community were wonderful. Here’s an excerpt: “And we are proud to know that in a time of great testing, our faculty and students proved themselves loyal and true in the highest sense.”

One hundred and two years later, the San Jose State community is once again being tested by another pandemic— Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Once again, the SJSU community is stepping up, rallying resources to fight the disease.

Similar to the 1918 flu outbreak, campus leaders have taken measures to protect students, faculty and staff. In an effort to promote social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus, SJSU administrators moved classes online.

Two SJSU alumni, working on the cutting edge of biotechnology, have helped their company, Cepheid, develop the first rapid COVID-19 test that can be administered at hospitals and urgent care centers and deliver test results within 45 minutes.

As local hospitals and emergency rooms run out of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, SJSU’s College of Science stepped in to help.

Boxes of gloves and masks going to Valley Medical Foundation.

Boxes of gloves and masks going to Valley Medical Foundation. Photo: Dean Michael Kaufman

“A group of biology and College of Science staff and faculty contacted me about our stock of gloves and masks, which normally would have been used in spring 2020 biology labs that are no longer meeting,” said College of Science Dean Michael Kaufman. “We quickly inventoried the materials and contacted Valley Medical Foundation. In the end we were able to contribute 56 cases of gloves, plus a smaller supply of N95 and surgical masks. We know that many SJSU graduates are part of the healthcare teams there, so it was especially meaningful to be able to contribute this personal protective equipment to Valley Medical.”

  • The university also donated hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl to a local company to make hand sanitizer, said SJSU Vice President of Administration of Finance Charlie Faas.
  • Faculty in the industrial design department are using 3-D printers to make test kit swabs and badly needed ventilator parts for front line medical staff.
3D printer

SJSU Industrial Design faculty members are using 3-D printers to make ventilator parts, test swab kits and face shield parts. Photo: Jesus Hernandez.

Although the times and the resources are different, students, faculty and staff at the Normal School, and now San Jose State, are uniting, supporting each other, proving themselves loyal and true to help overcome the global pandemics of 1918 and 2020.