Group of nurses from 1919

Pandemic Parallels

A century apart, women leaders took similar actions in response to disease outbreaks

March 15, 2021

In both the 1918 and 2020 pandemics, Columbia’s nursing students were on the front lines, getting a crash course on how to care for patients during a crisis. 

Nursing students left the classroom for the hospital ward in September 1918, when the influenza pandemic reached New York, and Presbyterian Hospital (now NewYork-Presbyterian) was flooded with flu patients. “The whole medical building was turned over to the care of the epidemic patients, with many extra beds in the way of cots, including the beds on the roof,” according to an article in the nursing school’s Quarterly Magazine from January 1919.  

“The epidemic of influenza, which made such deadly inroads upon our city last autumn, crowded our Hospital far beyond its limit and kept the nursing staff working at high pressure. Suspension of all classes and instruction became necessary and every effort was made to save the lives of patients trusted to our care,” Anna C. Maxwell, the director of the School of Nursing, wrote in Presbyterian Hospital’s annual report for the year ending September 30, 1919.  

Maxwell founded the school---then a part of Presbyterian Hospital—in 1892 and served as dean until 1921.  

More than a century later, Columbia Nursing’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was strikingly similar. When Columbia University shut down its campus in March 2020 as the outbreak hit New York City, the nursing school, in collaboration with NewYork-Presbyterian, arranged for students to serve as nurse technicians caring for non-COVID-19 patients. That plan had to change when the epidemic overwhelmed hospitals, so the nurse techs would be caring for COVID-19 patients after all. Nevertheless, 85 students signed on for the paid, 40-hour-a-week jobs, while 156 helped out by answering calls on COVID-19 hotlines run by CUIMC and the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation. 

High Praise for Nursing Staff, Students 

Then as now, student nurses won high praise from nursing school leaders. “I cannot speak highly enough of the esprit de corps and the supreme devotion of the Nursing Staff, the Students and the Probationers, during those trying months,” Maxwell wrote.  

Writing similarly about the Columbia Nursing students who stepped in to help during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dean Lorraine Frazier said: “We learned about their courage, commitment and calling. Kudos to these students, who will be an incredible force in the future.” 

A second, milder wave of the flu pandemic arrived in 1919, and while Presbyterian’s wards were again turned over to flu patients, far fewer nurses got sick than in the previous wave, according to an article in the Quarterly Magazine from January 1920, which also noted that “the School feels that the long-anticipated ‘eight-hour day’ is largely responsible for this.” 

While the seasonal nature of the flu meant the world got some breathing room after the first wave of the flu, the coronavirus pandemic has already lasted a full year, putting an unprecedented strain on nurses and other health care professionals.  

‘Alarming condition of public health’ 

In 1919, Maxwell wrote: “Our Nation is at last awake to the alarming condition of public health and the immediate necessity of providing a remedy.”  The nursing school added a four-month course in public health in response. 

A century later, the 2020 pandemic—along with the Black Lives Matter Movement—also exposed “alarming” public health conditions: stark racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, maternal mortality, heart disease, and more. 

In a June 2020 letter, published a week after the killing of George Floyd, Dean Frazier wrote: “Racism is a public health threat that we must and can counter at every opportunity. 

I pledge that Columbia Nursing, as an institution and as an aggregation of individuals, will continue to stand definitively and vociferously against slights and insults large and small toward people of color. And we will do our very best to push society at large toward doing better than it has done,” she added. 

“As nurses, we can do nothing less.” 

These parallels in response to the 1918 and 2020 pandemics illustrate the central role of nursing in public health, and the school’s continuing, and evolving, commitment to serving the underserved.