In Their Own Words: Drexel Students and the 1918 Pandemic

The Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry's Domestic Science Class of 1919, as seen in the 1919 Lexerd Yearbook. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.
The Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry's Domestic Science Class of 1919, as seen in the 1919 Lexerd Yearbook. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

Please visit the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website for the latest public health advisories.

It’s still undetermined how Drexel University’s 2020 yearbook will document the COVID-19 pandemic, since the 2020 Lexerd is now set to be released in December 2020 rather than this past June.

In the meantime, you can look at what Drexel students said and did to remember the 1918 influenza pandemic in yearbooks. That global, life-altering pandemic broke out in Philadelphia in September 1918, pushing the fall start of the then-Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry back to October.

Lexerd yearbooks — which have been published since 1913are available in the Drexel University Archives (and online). That means that the 1919 to 1922 yearbooks were created for and by some of the students who were at Drexel during the 1918 pandemic.

Previously, DrexelNow published a story, “In Their Own Words: The Front Lines of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” showing what faculty and students from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), one of the Drexel University College of Medicine predecessor institutions, wrote about the pandemic. In this article, DrexelNow shares some 1919–1922 yearbook entries of Drexel students, as recorded in their own words. Please note that the quotes below are lightly edited, with original spelling, grammar and capitalization intact.

From Drexel’s 1919 yearbook:

The yearbook entry for graduating domestic science student Jennie Benjamin: “Miss Benjamin is one of our bright students. She has done splendid work through the course, and we are very proud of her. During the epidemic last fall she went into one of the emergency hospitals, and took charge of the diet kitchen. She is a quiet soul, but ever ready to help her classmates.”

The yearbook entry for 1919 graduate Jennie Benjamin, as it appeared in the 1919 yearbook. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

Ruth E. Frank, graduating dietician student and class historian: “After a long vacation we began our senior year at Drexel, the first part of November. From last year’s Domestic Science Class, the patriotic ones, twenty-seven in number, bravely undertook the hard and strenuous task of fitting themselves for army dieticians. In a very short time, however, this number decreased to seventeen.”

Helen Simson, graduating domestic arts student and class historian, and an editor-in-chief of the Lexerd: “The summer over, we were ready for school; but owing to the influenza epidemic, school was not ready for us. On October 21, we finally started with a class of seventeen — seventeen girls prepared to sew and draft millions of patterns.”

La Versa “Versa” Youmans, graduating secretarial student and class historian, and Lexerd associate editor: “When we reassembled this fall, after a prolonged vacation on account of influenza, only thirteen of us returned.”

The yearbook entry for the Dramatic Club reads: “The Dramatic Club, which has been one of the social factors in the Institute since its infancy, was greatly delayed in its work this year, due to conditions caused by the influenza epidemic.”

The yearbook entry for the sophomore engineers (Class of 1921): “October eleventh, nineteen eighteen, saw the beginning of our second year of scholastic work under the regulations of the newly established S.A.T.C. [Student Army Training Corps, a predecessor of Drexel’s ROTC program] About twenty of our old class returned to try a combination of army life and school life.”

The Class of 1921 engineering students, as shown in the 1919 yearbook. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

The yearbook entry for the freshman engineers (Class of 1922): “We first met at Drexel under that awful nightmare, the S.A.T.C. Because of our late opening and the numerous government regulations, our activities were confined to being the backbone of the S.A.T.C. football team.”

From Drexel’s 1920 yearbook:

Harry Hyson Bonner, graduating civil engineering student and the engineers’ senior class historian: “In October of 1918, instead of waiting in line for the celebrated matriculation card the procedure consisted first of a physical examination, conducted by army officers, in the gymnasium; then going to the local draft board and being inducted into the service of the United States. This meant that our home in the future was to be the barracks located on the fourth floor of the Electro-Dental Building at Thirty-Third and Arch Streets [the building has been a part of Drexel since 1988 and is now the site of Drexel’s Academic Building, James E. Marks Intercultural Center and Drexel Police Headquarters, for example]; and that our eating house was Casatt’s old restaurant which had been turned into a Mess Hall. To most of us it seemed as though we were serving time because the outfit was quarantined for one long month on account of the influenza epidemic.”

[Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt of a play that appeared in the 1920 yearbook]

As We Have Been

A play in two acts and six scenes with an epilogue

By J. Machenner [believed to be Jean McCracken, graduating secretarial student, member of the Dramatic Club, literary staff of “The Drexerd,” a Drexel literary magazine, and associate editor of “The Lexerd”]


A. Schmitracken [believed to be Adelaide M. Schmitthenner, graduating secretarial student, associate editor of “The Drexerd,” business manager of “The Lexerd”] 

Dramatic personae:

Delicia….a little scullery maid from the D.S&A [Domestic Science and Arts]

Preciso….an office appliance from the Secretarials….

Act 1 scene 1

The court, December 13, 1918, Delicia and Preciso disclosed sitting on the railing around the clock. 

Delicia: My dear, isn’t it simply glorious that vacation’s only a few days away?

Precisio: I’ll say it is. Heavens! How the time flies! It doesn’t seem possible that we’ve been here almost two months. Yet, I feel so much at home.

Delicia: So do I now. Do you remember how long we had to wait in the fall before school opened on account of the flu?

Precisio: Wasn’t it maddening, when we were all packed? And when it did open, my gosh! Will you ever forget Registration Day? I never felt more like a little lost sheep in my life.

From Drexel’s 1921 yearbook:

The Class of 1922 engineering students, as shown in the 1919 yearbook. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

The yearbook entry for the “1921 Engineers’ Class History:” “Thusly may be described the happenings during our Sophomore Year. Those who did not get the influenza got something to take its place — two weeks in the barracks at the Electro Dental Building. First we reported to Lt. Lyons, had our papers made out and then we took the medical examination in the gym….The most uncomfortable part of this “Uniform Period” was the first few weeks while we were under quarantine. The only time we got out was when we marched to the mess hall. Oh! What a mess!”

From Drexel’s 1922 yearbook:

Irwin Hoffman, graduating mechanical engineering major and class historian: “This class began as soldiers in the U.S. Army — a very noble beginning indeed. We were the S.A.T.C., and as such we Stuck Around Till Christmas, when the War was over. After being in uniform and quarantine for a long time, we were given the right to live once more.”