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A Casualty of the Pandemic


Penn State University Archive Photo

Josiah Yerger Shaner was born on 26 October 1898 in Sanatoga, Montgomery County, PA. He was the oldest child of Irvin S. and Cora A. (nee Yerger) Shaner. His father was a farmer until sometime between 1920 and 1930 when he became a coal merchant.


Before going to college, Josiah worked as a stove moulder for the Floyd-Wells Company which was founded in Royersford, PA in 1884. He was of medium height and build, with grey eyes and brown hair.


The Spanish flu hit at the height of World War I and affected about a third of the world's population and resulted in at least 50 million deaths worldwide. At this time Josiah was a student at Penn State University. Not only did he have to deal with this deadly pandemic, he also was experiencing the militarization of the school as it prepared young men for the war.


The war had begun to impact campus life as early as 1916 and continued increase. In February 1917, more than 2,300 male Penn State students sent telegrams to President Woodrow Wilson and Pennsylvania Governor Martin Brumbaugh, voicing the students' support for America's entry into the war as well as their willingness to join the fight.


When the country declared war against Germany on 6 April 1917, nearly 800 students enlisted in war-related employment. University President Edwin Sparks also offered the school’s agricultural powers for military use and formed an ROTC unit of more than 200 juniors and seniors in fall 1917. The draft age was 21 at that time so the impact to Penn State's enrollment dropped only by 10% for the 1917-1918 school year.


Then everything changed in the fall of 1918. In August, Congress lowered the draft age to 18, and with that, all “normal” social and academic life at Penn State was erased. The S.A.T.C. (Student Army Training Corps) required all physically qualified male college students to enlist, which amounted to around 1,600 Penn State undergrads. The campus was basically turned into a military base and required all undergrads to wear uniforms and adhere to military regulations. Fraternity houses were converted to barracks and new military housing was erected on Beaver Field.

Penn State University Archive Photo

The pandemic hit Philadelphia exceptionally hard after sailors, carrying the virus from Boston, arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 19 September 1918. Within days, 600 sailors had caught the disease. Nine days later, the Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign rally brought 200,000 Philadelphians together in the streets. By 1 October, there were 635 new cases. Quickly, Philadelphia, with a population of two million, became the city with the highest influenza deaths in the United States. About 75% of the city's doctors and nurses had been called to military duty, resulting in a severe shortage of medical professionals to help handle the epidemic. An October 7 Daily Pennsylvanian article stated, “The shortage of physicians is being felt very keenly, not only in this city, but throughout the country."


To alleviate the shortage of medical professionals, many people volunteered to help not only with medical care, but to clean facilities, dispose of dead bodies, work in dispensaries, operate soup kitchens, and record information. Volunteers came from religious groups, community organizations, and medical and nursing schools in Philadelphia. Many University of Pennsylvania students, some medical and some not, volunteered to help combat the epidemic. Overall, nineteen hospitals in the city were staffed by Penn medical students.


The pandemic began to spread across the state and eventually reached State College, adding to the already existing struggles. As the Spanish flu invaded the campus, all extracurricular activities, including football, were affected. Five games during the 1918 Penn State football season were canceled. The Penn State Collegian (Penn State’s student newspaper at the time) did not issue any copies between May 1918 and December 1918. The paper triumphantly returned on 8 January 1919, with a headline reading, "College Assumes Normal Aspect."


A fellow classmate of Josiah's, Harvey Baturin from Harrisburg, first became ill on 7 October. He was a member of the freshman class and was enrolled in the industrial engineering course. He was twenty years old. He went under the care of Dr. Joseph P. Ritenour (a relative, by the way, and maybe a subject of a future post), the college physician who attended to him at a fraternity house where he was living. A week later, pneumonia developed and complications set in. He died on 16 October with his parents and sister at his side.


Josiah enlisted as a private in the S.A.T.C. on 15 October 1918. It was established to provide trained army officers to serve in Europe. Six days later he caught the flu and was hospitalized. Like Harvey, he developed pneumonia. The majority of deaths during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 were not caused by the influenza virus acting alone. Instead, most victims succumbed to bacterial pneumonia following influenza virus infection. The pneumonia was caused when bacteria that normally inhabit the nose and throat invaded the lungs along a pathway created when the virus destroyed the cells that line the bronchial tubes and lungs.


Josiah lived for a week before dying on Monday, 28 October 1918, two days after his twentieth birthday. Most likely none of his family were with him, as an obituary stated that his "body was forwarded to the home of his parents." Despite only serving in the army for less than two weeks, he received a veteran's burial. Josiah and Harvey were two of only six students at Penn State to die of the Spanish flu.


Pennsylvania was one of the hardest hit states with over 60,000 deaths. Philadelphia lost about 12,000 people and had about 47,000 reported cases in just four weeks. In just six months, there were about 16,000 deaths and half a million cases of Spanish flu in Philadelphia.


By the end of October, much of campus activity had returned to normal. Most influenza restrictions had been removed, and many student volunteers returned to classes.

On 8 November, there was a report that by the ninth, the entire state of Pennsylvania was expected to have been free from influenza and the statewide ban on public meetings would be removed.


Unfortunately, the influenza epidemic during the fall of 1918 was overshadowed by the events in Europe. Attention had returned to the war when an armistice was signed on 11 November and the anticipation of the troops returning home.


Josiah was buried in the New Hanover Lutheran Church Cemetery, Gilbertsville, Montgomery County, PA.


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