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How a band of student volunteers and a campus physician with a carnation in his lapel helped confine the tragedy of the 1903 typhoid epidemic.

Courtesy Stanford University Archives

Members of Student Guild in 1902.

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By Theresa Johnston

Ray Lyman Wilbur was not accustomed to taking the law into his own hands. Yet there he was—mild-mannered campus physician and future University president—standing guard with a shotgun at 4:30 in the morning over a fetid barnyard in the Palo Alto foothills. Days before, students on the Stanford campus had begun to collapse with fever and stabbing abdominal pain. It was typhoid, and the most likely source was contaminated milk from this ranch. As a member of the Palo Alto Board of Health, Wilbur was taking no chances. The Parreiro dairy had to be shut down.

Nineteen years earlier, University founder Jane Stanford had watched helplessly for three weeks while her 15-year-old son succumbed to typhoid at the Hotel Bristol in Florence, Italy. Now, despite improvements in medicine and public sanitation, the disease was threatening hundreds of “her children” on the California campus that bore Leland Stanford Jr.’s name. “It was a tremendous crisis... without parallel,” Stanford President David Starr Jordan recalled. Yet thanks to the tireless efforts of campus physicians, nurses and students, Stanford limped through the typhoid epidemic of 1903 with far fewer deaths than might have been expected. And it did so, remarkably, without having to close its doors.

By all indications, the spring of 1903 should have been a happy time for the 12-year-old University. The previous fall’s freshman class was the largest yet; Memorial Church and a new chemistry building had just opened. Dr. Edith Matzke, an assistant in Stanford’s department of hygiene and physical training, recalled that parents and the public “possessed an unquestioning faith in the University’s natural advantages. The people were proud of the artesian sources of their water supply and their modern plumbing [and thought] the site of Stanford University was the best and healthiest, in addition to being the most picturesque, in the country.”

Up the road just a few miles was a very different picture. Like many, the Serpa family had no indoor toilet and little money for doctors. The epidemic began at their home in December 1902, when a Portuguese relative came to visit from San Francisco. Soon after his arrival this cousin fell ill, and Mrs. Serpa attempted to nurse him. Then she too became sick, and then two of her children, all with the same symptoms: fever, chills, headache, bowel trouble, nausea. Within weeks, all four victims in the house were dead.

As grief and confusion overtook the Serpa house, “many friends came from the surrounding ranches to nurse the sick and to sympathize with the distressed husband and father,” Matzke wrote in a letter to Jordan. Among the well-meaning visitors were the Parreiros, Portuguese immigrants who leased a dairy farm on Los Trancos Creek, about four miles from Palo Alto. By January their child also was sick with typhoid. Lacking indoor plumbing, the family tossed its household waste onto the banks of the nearby creek—the same water source that Mr. Parreiro used to rinse out his milk cans.

The final link in the infectious chain was Edward Loder, who purchased milk and distributed it by horse-drawn cart throughout Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. As March 1903 wore on, harried local physicians began seeing two new typhoid cases each day in the combined campus/town population of 3,500. By early April they were seeing a dozen or more. Meeting in emergency session, the Palo Alto Board of Health ordered tests on the local water supply. When these showed no contamination, officials began focusing on the one food common to nearly all the patients: milk from Loder’s wagon.

In her vivid 1959 history of the University, English professor Edith Mirrielees described the first two Stanford student casualties: fraternity brothers, probably from Phi Delta Theta or Zeta Psi, whose house had been on Loder’s milk route. “A Stanford instructor noted two men in his class... heavy-eyed and inattentive. Several times during the hour he glanced at them, liking what he saw less and less. As the two passed his desk at the hour’s end, he stopped them to ask if they felt sick. Both denied it—they had been sitting up late; they supposed they looked sleepy. By the next day, however, denials were useless. The two were unquestionably sick. So were others in the same fraternity. So were several in Encina, several among the students living in Palo Alto, and others in Palo Alto who were not students. Typhoid was in full swing.”

Wilbur, who had graduated with Stanford’s Class of 1896 and attended San Francisco’s Cooper Medical College, was hardly a stranger to infectious diseases. As a physiology professor and part-time campus physician, he already had nursed Stanford students through small outbreaks of diphtheria, polio and smallpox. Yet these new typhoid cases seemed particularly ominous. Earlier that year, typhoid at Cornell University had sickened nearly a thousand students and nearby residents. Stanford, he realized, was just as vulnerable—and it had far fewer resources. Jane Stanford long had opposed the opening of an infirmary on campus, fearing that it would hurt Stanford’s reputation as a healthful place. There were no fully equipped hospitals between San Francisco and San Jose.

As news about the epidemic trickled across the country, frantic parents began telegraphing their students to depart the Farm at once. Many obeyed, leaving lecture halls half empty. The grandmother of Clarence Osborne, Class of 1909, wrote Clarence’s mother, Nellie, on May 4 from New York: “I feel so worried about Clare. The paper mentioned already 100 cases of typhoid fever there and it’s a very dangerous disease as you well know from experience . . . I do hope Clare will come home or take the utmost precautions about the drinking water or milk and keep his system all right.”

One New York Tribune headline blared SCOURGE OF TYPHOID AT STANFORD. “What is the matter with our universities?” another New York paper lamented. “They have costly laboratories for testing and trying and proving and disproving. How could their chemistry and their biology be of more value than in testing [water] at frequent intervals?” In a letter to the Palo Alto Times, Pastor S. Frazer Langford of Palo Alto’s First Baptist Church suggested a popular, if xenophobic, remedy: “Taking the milk business out of the hands of the foreign population, paying a price for it at which an American can live, and then a rigid insistence upon periodic tests at the hands of an efficient inspector.”

Fortunately, in the midst of the crisis, an unlikely hero was in the making. Two weeks before the outbreak, Frank L. Hess, a senior majoring in geology, had been elected president of the Students Guild, a voluntary organization founded in 1895 to provide a modicum of health coverage for needy students. Although about a third of the student body had paid 50 cents to join, in fact the organization “had no money in its treasury, no prestige, no experience to draw on,” Mirrielees wrote. Nevertheless, “almost within the hour after the verdict typhoid had been pronounced, Hess had put the Guild at the disposal of the college authorities and rallied its members to help.”

Working with Wilbur and Dr. William Snow, a cheerful, indefatigable associate professor in the department of hygiene and physical training, Hess and his army of student volunteers commandeered the so-called “Bull Pen” over the dining room in Encina Hall. They set up an emergency ward serving 11 male patients. They leased a boarding house at Lytton Avenue and Cowper Street in Palo Alto and turned it into a hospital for 11 women; another house on Waverley held eight patients. Mrs. Stanford, though somewhat uneasy about the Encina ward, “contributed a thousand dollars at once,” Mirrielees wrote, “and let it be known that she would pay for nurses, as many as were needed.”

As the epidemic progressed, Wilbur, who drove the only sanctioned automobile on campus, shuttled constantly between the Encina ward and the Palo Alto infirmaries, frequently stopping at stricken houses along the way. “Often during the three weeks I was unable to come home even for a few hours at night. I visited some of the typhoid cases two to six times a day,” the lanky physician wrote in his memoirs. Years later, a grateful alumna recalled that Wilbur left a carnation from his lapel on the pillow of her sickbed—“for good behavior,” he told her. The doctor’s compassion had a practical side, too. In a May 6 letter to the Palo Alto Times, he thought to include some recipes for chicken and mutton soups. (“An old hen,” he advised, “makes the best broth.”)

Wilbur’s worst case was that of a Stanford student who was just getting over measles when he contracted both typhoid and pneumonia. That young man survived. But as the local papers noted, others were not so lucky. The first recorded student death, on April 26, was that of Jimpo Kanada, a Japanese philosophy major who died at the Buddhist mission in San Francisco. He was followed by another Japanese student, Yasogoro Hirayama, and then by a female student, Helen Christine Osher, a German major from Lamberton, Minn., whom the Palo Alto Times described as “a young woman of charming character and exceptional beauty.” Other casualties included law student Foster Ely Brackett, physiology student E.I. Friselle, law student Edgar Garver Riste, English student Florence May Baldwin of Palo Alto, and Horace Clarence Hubbard, a history student from Los Angeles who died at home after leaving the University. The final recorded student death, on June 2, was that of Ellen R. Lewers, a graduate student in botany from Reno, Nev. She suffered for almost two months.

In all, some 120 Stanford students were taken ill, and nine died. Yet despite those tragic cases, it was clear the Farm had been spared the worst. The mortality rate for students nursed on campus was lower than the typical death rates for patients nursed at home. And despite widespread rumors that the University would have to shut down, only the last day of the term was cancelled, in order to speed up graduation. Members of the Class of 1903 voted to skip their highly anticipated senior ball and give the savings to the Students Guild. Together with funds from Mrs. Stanford, campuswide donations amounted to more than $5,000—enough for the Guild to cover its expenses and become a fixture of student life.

The boarding house on Lytton was purchased and endured as the Guild Hospital, complete with an operating room and staffed by a matron and a nurse. Guild fees were made compulsory and raised to $1 per semester, then $2. The facility was replaced in 1910 by the Peninsula Hospital.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle near the close of the epidemic, President Jordan could not contain his admiration for the way the young campus had responded to the crisis. The doctors Wilbur and Snow “gave their whole time, day and night, to the relief of the students,” he observed, and the attitude of students had been most encouraging. “It is safe to say that but for the Students Guild and its instant activity, there would have been four times the actual number of deaths,” he wrote. “If Stanford ever had a cross of the Legion of Honor to bestow, it would be given to Frank L. Hess.”

For Jane Stanford, too, the end of the 1903 typhoid epidemic surely came as an immense relief. By then she was 74 years old, nearing the end of her life, and the thought of losing students to typhoid must have troubled her deeply. At the post-commencement luncheon that year, the campus matriarch gently addressed her graduating class. “The trial of sickness that we have passed through has developed a closer bond between us,” she said, “and it has been with deep and sincere satisfaction that I have witnessed the tender sympathetic side of your natures.” It was an example that would leave its impression, she predicted, “not only upon yourselves, but upon all future students that may come to Stanford.”

THERESA JOHNSTON, ’83, is a frequent contributor to Stanford.  

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