The Tragic 1909 Typhoid Fever Epidemic

By Sara Love

Brown

In was 1909; Athens Female College entered its sixty-sixth scholastic year on the 15th day of September. The previous five years had been the most successful years in the entire history of the Institution. In addition to local students, there were 151 boarding students enrolled from across Alabama and adjoining states. The faculty was made up of 23 excellent administrators and teachers. The health of the entire College community seemed perfect. College records indicate that only two deaths had occurred during its history and those occurred before the Civil War. On October 14, 1909, there was not a sick person on the campus.

On October 15th, one girl was reported sick. By Monday, October 18th, about thirty showed symptoms of having been infected. All were confined in the Founders Hall Infirmary. By October 21st about fifty others had similar symptoms.

College physicians, Dr. William Hagan, and Dr. E. B. Hardin, stated that there were three possibilities: Acute Influenza, Ptomaine Poison, or Typhoid Fever. At the time of the outbreak, Dr. E. M. Mason, State Bacteriologist, was out of the state. Dr. W. H. Sanders, State Health Officer, came to Athens to inspect the situation. Dr. William Litterer, of Nashville, an eminent Bacteriologist, a member of the Vanderbilt Medical Department, and in charge of the Pasteur Institute of Tennessee, arrived on the campus late Thursday, the 21st.

Dr. Litterer made numerous blood and food tests. His bacteriological examinations of various articles of food and water used by the College were extensive. By Saturday, October 23rd, eight days from the date of the first reported case, the consensus of all physicians was Typhoid Fever. Dr. Sanders, and later Dr. Mason, concurred with that decision.

Miss Mary Norman Moore was College President at the time. She, however, had been injured in an accident on October 12th, and had been taken to Birmingham for treatment. Rev. Frank W. Brandon, College Board Member, took over for Miss Moore and ordered students be sent home. All students who were well and able to travel left the College within the next two days. Seventeen infected persons were unable to leave. About fifteen of those subsequently developed Typhoid Fever.

In all there were sixty-five cases diagnosed, fifty-seven students, and eight Faculty members. At the time, there were two hundred and eighteen students and Faculty on campus. Fifteen died.

Four of the academy’s younger students, girls between 12-14 years of age, were too ill to send home and died at the college. Four other deaths occurred on school grounds: Miss Nina Word (an orphan girl reared by relatives in Limestone County); Miss Louise McWhorter of Portersville, Alabama; and Miss Annie Nichols of New Hope. Lois Kennedy Davis, alumna, remembered that Mattie Jim Redding from Calera, also died from the fever.

President Moore was in Birmingham during the epidemic. Everyone who could be sent home had been sent home, including eleven apparently well students who later contracted the illness and died from it.

Florence Brown, secretary to Miss Moore, College bookkeeper, and literature teacher (1910 yearbook), alone remained to care for the sick. She was 21, and the only child of her English-Canadian parents. Sadly, as the health of most of her charges improved, she herself succumbed to the fever on November 5, 1909.

Although the College did not close its doors, those doors were not open. The quarantine, which lasted from October 15th until December 10th, made it necessary to make up classes during weekends and holidays.

A “typhoid carrier” working in the kitchen was at first blamed, but later the chief suspect was the town’s open water supply. The city soon afterward sealed the big spring. Now unsealed, its “duck pond” is the nucleus of the city park.

The most visible, positive, and permanent good to come out of the tragedy was a new women’s dormitory. Begun immediately, and completed in 1912, it was named for the heroine of the epidemic, young Florence Brown. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. T.J. Brown, made the first large donation. The building’s cost of $7,000 included fireplaces but no central heating. Within a few years, however, all the buildings on the campus shared a centralized heating system.

After the new and larger dormitory (Sanders Hall) opened in 1926, Brown Hall was remodeled, first for classrooms and offices, next as the College president’s home, and now as an administrative office building.

For more information on this story or other Athens State University history, please contact the Archives at:
(256) 216-6671 or sara.love@athens.edu