Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Mount, the CSJs, and epidemics

Crowded corridors at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Pasco, Wash.
The photo is undated, probably from around 1950.
WITH THE MOUNT CLOSED due to the COVID-19 pandemic and all of us hunkering down at home, we have been thinking about past epidemics that raced through the United States, all of which impacted the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet -- and later Mount Saint Mary's -- in different ways. Here are some historic highlights from our sources in the University Archives & Special Collections.

Having an epidemic? Build a hospital

The CSJs' hospital in Tucson,
Ariz., in the 1920s.
One of the scourges of the 19th Century was cholera, a water-borne disease spread by human waste and primitive sanitation. It was extremely contagious and often fatal. Those stricken would be healthy one day and dead the next. Germ theory hadn't yet been proposed, so diseases were thought to be transmitted by forms of "bad air" called miasmas, which the steamy Mississippi River next to the CSJs' early settlements seemed to produce. Creeping up the river from New Orleans, cholera struck St. Paul, Minn., in the summer of 1854, less than three years after the the nuns had arrived and before they'd been able to build the town's first hospital. With funding from local citizens and doctors, they started taking cholera victims into an old log cabin. Patients who could afford it paid a dollar a day. At the same time the sisters sped up their plans for a permanent hospital, which became St. Joseph's.

A similar story was repeated by the CSJs in Eureka, Calif., who had barely unpacked their trunks when they were faced with patients suffering from the devastating Spanish Influenza in 1918, a virus that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. In Pasco, Wash., CSJs took in flu patients at their tiny Our Lady of Lourdes hospital, just two years old. The sisters in Indianapolis couldn't offer a hospital, but they responded to the pandemic by opening the campus of Sacred Heart High School for outdoor "field" masses on Sundays. Parishioners could practice some "social distancing" and still receive the sacraments.

In the end, the Spanish Flu took a terrible toll on the CSJ community, claiming eight mostly young and healthy Carondelet sisters in 1918 and 1919.

Measles at the Mount 

High on a hill in Brentwood, Mount students were isolated in a unique way, but they weren't immune from virus outbreaks. The "Mountain Ear," a weekly gossip column in the The View newspaper (mountaineer -- get it?) reported humorously on March 20, 1957, that a local epidemic of measles had infected four students and possibly six in Brady Hall, including the editor. If a gossip column sounds unserious, it's because in the decades before the measles vaccine it was a very common childhood disease, and most Americans, including Mount students, had developed the immunity. There's no evidence the measles spread. Over the decades, The View reported an occasional student with an embarrassing case, and no one gave it a second thought. It wouldn't be until 2015 when parents' failure to vaccinate their kids led to a dangerous global outbreak, that everyone started paying attention. The warnings show up in recent student newsletters.

The polio scourge

A childhood case of measles is one thing, but another childhood disease caused absolute terror in mid-20th Century. Although there were many polio outbreaks in the 20th century, the epidemic after World War II was the most terrifying. Starting around 1947 in California, it wasn't stopped until 1955 and the release of the the Salk vaccine. The worst year was 1952, one of the largest outbreaks in U.S. history. Cases that year of poliomyelitis, also known by its starker name infantile paralysis, numbered almost 60,000 in the U.S. Three-thousand children and young adults died, and more than 20,000 were left with permanent mild to severe muscle and nerve damage, including paralysis.

Up on the Brentwood hilltop Mount student were relatively safe. Science and nursing majors studied the disease intently, receiving advice in the columns of The View about what scientific articles to read.  Recruited by ads in the paper, many students responded with regular blood donations for the Red Cross after it was discovered that gamma globulin, a blood component, boosted the immune system and was effective in reducing the symptoms of polio and and other serious diseases.

Adelaide Spuhler Mealey '49
Students at a a Family Day event in 1954 heard a talk from an alumna about day-to-day living after surviving polio. Adelaide Spuhler Mealey, '49 contracted polio after her marriage but was able to care for her two toddlers from her wheelchair.

Virus research

No blog on viruses and MSMU can fail to mention our famous CSJ biologist, Sister Mary Gerald Leahy, whose pioneering research in the 1960s on mosquito reproduction was surfaced anew during the Zika virus epidemic in 2016. Rampant in South America, the Zika virus is spread by aedes aegypti mosquitoes -- which Sister Gerald actually raised in St. Joseph Hall -- and can cause serious birth defects if the mother contracts it during her pregnancy. The epidemic struck at the time of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, foreshadowing the current debate over canceling the 2020 Summer Olympics. The Rio Games went on as planned, but because of Covid-19 the Toyko Olympics have been postponed.  


Wildfire, epidemics -- never has the Mount been entirely closed in its history until now. The wonderful benefits of transportation and travel mean that the safety and isolation of the mid-century Mount and earlier is almost a dream. But the students of the early 1950s, sweating out the polio epidemic, didn't have smartphones, online classes, Zoom or digital article databases. The common thread is that we live with uncertainty and sometimes fear, but life always manages to go on.

And while all of Los Angeles is on lockdown, maybe we will have a little more time for this blog! Stay safe, stay healthy.    


We have access to so much wonderful stuff. Check out Sister Mary Agnes Rossiter, CSJ, A Sketch of Her Life by Sister Lucinda Savage, CSJ (1947), which mentions the Spanish Flu. The CSJs' early hospitals and cholera epidemics are mentioned in The Century's Harvest 1836-1936, also by Sister Lucinda. Digital copies of The View and all our digital collections can be viewed at

An advertisement from The View on February 16, 1957, urges students
to donate blood to create gamma globulin to fight polio and other diseases.