The most characteristic sound around the Princeton campus last week was not the familiar and rhythmic tolling of Nassau Hall’s bell, nor even the sleep-shattering bedlam of the steam-shovels on the new U-Store site. The sound around campus was everywhere: if you went to the heights of Blair Tower, behold, it was there, and even C Floor of the Libe, normally a haven for silence seekers, echoed and re-echoed the irritating noise. Everywhere you went, people were coughing. … The cough was almost always a good, lusty, chesty type which sort of set one apart as the bearer of a badge of courage and defiance—no infirmary was going to get his hands on him. No sir!
–Princeton Alumni Weekly, November 1, 1957
This week’s FluFest is one of the ways the University works to keep students in good health for their studies, but keeping Princetonians healthy has sometimes proven to be a significant challenge. The Bric-a-Brac for 1958 reported on hundreds of students “plagued by a rash of…sickness” (118) “bedded down at home or in the campus infirmary,” including in the Student Center, which “was converted into an emergency annex.” It doesn’t sound like students had as much fun that year, with many social events canceled by Dean of the College Jeremiah S. Finch. One morose senior complained, “I mean it, it’s tragic—this [epidemic] … is ruining my senior year! Now I’ve got nothing at all to do but work on my thesis.” (Princeton Alumni Weekly, October 25, 1957)
There were typically about 100 infirmary admissions per month, but this jumped to over 600 in October 1957. The primary reason was a new kind of influenza sweeping across the globe. Nobody is certain where the new strain of “Asiatic Flu” (H2N2) originated, but the first reports of people falling ill from it came in Hong Kong in April 1957, with huge numbers of people succumbing to it wherever it was found. Concerned about the implications for the United States, government officials requested samples of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control urged America’s six manufacturers of vaccines to get to work on a vaccine for it as soon as possible. By September, the vaccine was ready, but there was not enough supply to meet demand. Once school started, the virus began spreading dramatically. About 3-6 weeks after school began (the incubation period of the illness), absenteeism reached its highest levels. The Prince noted that at one point, 71% of Philadelphia’s students, including those at the University of Pennsylvania, were out with the flu. Indeed, this particular flu seemed to infect the young more than the old. A 1959 study later estimated that approximately 60% of America’s students had, at some point, been absent due to the flu in 1957.