Deacon Lile ’09 had two senior theses to juggle at Hamilton, one in chemistry and the other, his clear favorite, in history. Captivated, Lile talked about his history research so much that, grim though the topic was, his closest friends were drawn in, too. He was burrowing into the devastating impact of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic on Hamilton College and environs.
The College, preoccupied by preparations for World War I, was a soft target for the deadly disease.
“When the flu first appeared in Clinton during the final week of September, the Hamilton community was completely unprepared. Due to their age and the unique biology of the virus, college students were particularly at risk,” Lile wrote in a related piece published his senior year in the alumni magazine. “Furthermore, the close quarters of on-campus housing at Hamilton provided ideal conditions for contagion. To make matters worse, the College had no infirmary and possessed no nursing staff to speak of.”
Dozens of students fell ill, and at least several died. Lile learned that the College converted Carnegie Residence Hall into a makeshift infirmary, sick army officers were housed in the Sigma Phi fraternity house, and students were asked to help care for the sick, risking their own lives to do so. Lile’s research brought to light the bravery of sophomore Robert Farrell, who wanted to become a doctor. Volunteering to help, Farrell quickly became ill and died.
“Farrell’s death directly contributed to some of the changes in Hamilton's policy on student health care. Farrell’s father was a prominent physician in Utica, and he believed that the best way to honor his son was to start a fund at the College. Dr. Farrell created the Robert Macalister Farrell Nursing Fund ‘to provide for the cost of hospital care of undergraduates,’” Lile wrote in the Alumni Review.
The flu pandemic forced the College to examine and improved how it safeguarded student health.
Lile thinks of that senior thesis often, and never more so than since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. He’s a trauma surgeon and a captain in the U.S. Air Force on active duty in St. Louis, where he’s part of a program that trains trauma surgeons. He practices general and trauma surgery and is a junior faculty member at St. Louis University Hospital and at Washington University Medical Center. Lile’s work as a surgeon has not been directly affected by the virus, but his wife is a nurse recently assigned to a COVID-19 unit at a local hospital.
Researching the 1918 pandemic as an undergraduate strengthened Lile’s interest in health systems. “One of the things that I find really fascinating, and what attracted me to trauma surgery, is that a lot of trauma surgery is about trauma systems and health systems and how they react in times of extreme stress to either a population or to an individual type of infrastructure,” Lile says. “I think that I've always been interested in that, and my work in the influenza pandemic was really around how the system reacted and changed as a result of that pandemic.”
As COVID-19 took hold, Lile received phone calls from his Hamilton friends who’d been interested in his research and wanted to talk about it in the context of today’s pandemic. They wanted to know what he thinks about it all, and he’s been thinking deeply about it for months.
“I was consuming a ton of content out of some of the medical journals in January and February, and was just very interested in the biology. This virus is, I think, similar in ways to 1918 that made me very nervous,” he says.
But, inherently an optimist, Lile is reassured by the ability of today’s world to handle the pandemic compared to the world of 1918 and the Spanish flu. For one thing, in 1918 there was no sustained shutdown of Hamilton’s campus, of schools in Clinton, of the country at large.
“I hope that, through all the work that we're doing and the immense sacrifices people, like the seniors in College who have to miss a very important part of their lives — my heart breaks for them — I hope that the end result of all of those measures is what I saw coming out of the flu, which was an immense improvement in the systems with which we deal with these kinds of things; a deep understanding of the dangers that we live in, even in a more modern world,” Lile says.