Kanaalweg 2, het onderkomen van EWI begin twintigste eeuw. (Foto Studieverzameling EWI)
Kanaalweg 2, the home of EWI at the beginning of the twentieth century. (Photo EWI study collection)

This is not the first time that TU Delft has closed because of an epidemic. It also happened in 1918. TU Delft historian Abel Streefland tells the story.

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More than 100 years ago, in 1918, TU Delft was also hit by an outbreak of a pandemic. In the last year of the First World War, soldiers from the United States of America brought a new virus – the subtype H1N1 –to the continent of Europe.

The illness, that primarily hit young people, became known as the Spanish Flu because Spanish newspapers were the first to report it. How did TU Delft respond? What measures were taken and how can we compare that to today’s situation?

The first outbreak of the Spanish Flu in Delft was in the summer of 1918. It is thought to have spread to the residents of Delft from soldiers who were stationed in the city at the time. The first wave subsided by the end of that summer.

A second outbreak, this time among the students of the Technical University of Applied Sciences, the predecessor of the Technical University of Delft, arose during the initiation ceremonies at the student clubs. During the initiation in September, first year students were sprayed with a fire extinguisher and had to walk around for two days in their wet clothes. It was hardly surprising that, of the 150 students, 50 got ill. They were sent back to their parents by the doctors in Delft to recover and to protect the Delft citizens from infection. The rest of the initiation period was either scrapped or scaled down.

At the end of October, the Delftsche Courant newspaper described the situation in the city.

‘The apothecaries were raided for their antiseptics, the children were kept at home and not allowed to go to school, as much food and drink were boiled as possible, all because of the threatening spectre that has returned to our city: the Spanish Flu.’ 

Over the following few weeks, it transpired that the Spanish Flu mostly appeared in primary and secondary schools. It was very worrying that it was children and young adults who were badly affected by the illness. Many schools in Delft closed their doors temporarily.

De TH is van maandag 11 november 1918 t/m zaterdag 23 november 1918 gesloten. Bron: Delftsche Courant, 11 november 1918, via Delpher.nl.
The TH is closed from Monday November 11, 1918 to Saturday November 23, 1918. Source: Delftsche Courant, 11 November 1918, via Delpher.nl.

The Technical University of Applied Sciences also stopped all lectures, including laboratory courses and drawing lessons, from 11 to 23 November. Exams were all held orally and therefore easily be postponed. When students felt that they knew their subject well enough, they made an appointment with the teacher. The large scale of the exams as we know now did not exist then.

On 1 November 1918, Delft had about 3,000 cases. This was almost 9% of the city’s population. The pandemic would last until deep in the winter. The death rate in the Netherlands was a few tens of thousands of people who either died from the virus or from associated complications. About 135 people in Delft died.

The major outbreak in November coincided with the end of the First World War. There was also much unrest in the Netherlands at the time because of rumours of an impending revolution triggered by developments in Russia. To suppress these developments, a civil defence force, which included about 200 students, was formed. Many of the students were student club members. Ultimately there was no revolution and at the end of November, the students could resume their studies. As life returned to normal, the Spanish Flu subsided into the background and was eventually forgotten.

So closing TU Delft for teaching is not completely new. The difference was that in November 1918, it was only for a period of two weeks. During the Second World War TU Delft closed for longer, but as long as now has never occurred. Fortunately, the countless digital options that we have now, with all their pros and cons, means that teaching can continue. That was very different in 1918.

Abel Streefland is TU Delft’s university historian. For Delta, he reflects on TU Delft’s past.