Day 4 empty

Campus 2020

I snapped this photo on campus last week, while classes were on an extended Spring Break

light post, grass, several stone buildings

Washington University, looking across Mudd Field, March 17, 2020

On a spring day in previous years this grassy field would have been full of students playing soccer, Frisbee, lounging in hammocks between trees and poles, or just sitting with friends.  But in 2020 it was empty.

It immediately brought to mind this “photo” from the Student Life newspaper in 1918

newspaper image of empty box

Student Life, October 18, 1918. “This remarkable photograph, obtained through the subhuman efforts of our staff photographer, gives a detailed composite of student activities during the past week.”

Classes were suspended at Washington University for 6 weeks in the fall of 1918, following the orders of St. Louis Public Health officials to end the spread of influenza .  Student Life, already operating on a shorter staff and smaller budget publishing a few pages once a week due to the war rationing, did their best to carry on.   When classes resumed in winter 1918 (then on a trimester schedule) class meeting times were extended each day to fit in the missed content.


While other cities did not close public gatherings, St. Louis city and county did — and the result was a much “flatter curve.” In fact,  you may recognize the now familiar “flattening the curve” graphic as shown in this analysis of the 1918 influenza pandemic comparing St. Louis deaths to those in Philadelphia.


“Fig. 1 Excess P&I mortality over 1913–1917 baseline in Philadelphia and St. Louis, September 8–December 28, 1918. Data are derived from ref. 10.” (Hatchett et al, 1007)

Richard J. Hatchett, Carter E. Mecher, Marc Lipsitch
Public health interventions and epidemic intensity during the 1918 influenza pandemic

The future

Yes, posting something everyday* (ok, nearly everyday) is overly ambitious but that’s my aim now that virtual is our main way to communicate. Follow all the posts in this series at

If you have a St. Louis history question about this post, or other topics, I can be reached at or on twitter @mrectenwald

Stay safe and healthy everyone

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.