The 1918 Flu at Emory & Henry

Posted by Monica Hoel
A letter from a former student’s descendant offers insight about what campus was like during the world’s worst flu epidemic.

Clyde Burton Douthat was a student at Emory & Henry during the 1918 flu epidemic.

When the U.S. started requiring social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak, Clyde’s grandson, Stephen Park, wrote to Emory & Henry to share some research he had been doing. Using Ancestry.com, old letters, and conversations with his 92-year-old mother, Stephen pieced together an interesting glimpse of his grandfather’s experience on the E&H campus during the flu epidemic of 1918.

Here’s the story according to Mr. Park:

“I knew my grandfather as ‘Pop Pop,’ but for the sake of brevity and your sanity, I’ll refer to him below as Clyde.

Clyde was at E&H from 1917-1920.  Attending at the same time was his brother, James Wall Douthat (E&H ’21?).  Both men participated in the Hermesian Literary Society, the Glee Club, and Tau Kappa Alpha (an honorary fraternity for intercollegiate debaters and orators). 

Clyde’s writings describe his love for declamation and oratory, and how oratory competitions routinely took place immediately following E&H athletic events.  He was most proud when he represented E&H in the Virginia Intercollegiate Oratorical Contest.  When he won the competition (as a sophomore), ‘the college faculty and students declared an all-day holiday!’  Some of Clyde’s orations were compiled into a booklet titled Following the Gleam, and a copy is reportedly on file in E&H Kelly Library.

Clyde was drafted in the last draft of World War I and was assigned to the Students Army Training Corps (SATC) at Emory in 1918.  That same year, the Spanish flu epidemic/pandemic hit, and Wiley Hall was temporarily converted to an infirmary for treating patients. Two ‘nurses’ were needed to care for the influx of patients, and SATC students were asked to volunteer.  One of Clyde’s ‘friends’ mentioned his name as a good candidate.  Some friend!  At any rate, Clyde and classmate Bob Pickens were selected to serve…one during days, and one during nights, 12 hour watches, 7 days a week. 

The E&H doctor told the two, ‘I don’t know what this is, but we have to give them aspirin every day that they have a temperature; and salts to open their bowels.’  Additionally…‘all who could stand up were given a triple shot…an inoculation that should have been done in three doses.  All were affected for an afternoon, but one man’s arm was black for a month.’

While hundreds of thousands died across the country, apparently none of the patients at E&H/Wiley Hall died. 

While a student at Emory & Henry, Clyde wrote news articles for the Bristol Herald Courier.  From what I can determine, he skipped his fourth year at E&H in order to be a full-time newspaper reporter.  (He went on to complete his Bachelor Degree from the Knoxville College of Law.)

Also while at Emory & Henry, one of Clyde’s classmates (David Trigg James, E&H ’21?) introduced him to his sister Emma Eliza James, a student at nearby Martha Washington College.  Immediately smitten, Clyde would walk the nine miles to Abingdon for brief visits with Emma and to ‘promenade along the fence lining the college.’ They married in 1922. 

Unfortunately, this love story ended on August 15, 1927, when Emma Eliza died during childbirth.  Left behind were a grieving Clyde and the newborn Emma James Douthat, my mother.

By the way, my great great grandfather, Rev. Daniel Hoge Carr, was a Methodist circuit rider in Virginia and West Virginia for 40 years, and one of his junior preachers, Richard Waterhouse, later became President of E&H. 

No wonder my grandfather grew up hearing about E&H…and no wonder I grew up hearing about his love for those special college years!!  One of these days, I’ll visit E&H, and also wander down the road to “promenade” around Abingdon! Maybe I’ll stay a night or two at what’s left of Martha Washington College – The Martha Washington Inn – and imagine life as it was many years ago.”

Mr. Douthat went on to work as a news reporter for several years before practicing law. But after five years of law, he “discovered he enjoyed the field of hotel management, and as a result, he owned and/or managed many hotels, mostly in the Washington D.C. area.”

  • Clyde Burton Douthat

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