Dear Mr. Mudd: War, Epidemics, and Suspended Classes at Princeton

Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,

Has Princeton University ever had to close the campus before? Or have a lot of students been displaced and had to leave and/or study at home for some other reason in the past?

A. In 2020, Princeton University suspended residential instruction after Spring Break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was probably the first time anyone within the Princeton community could remember something much like this happening, but within the full history of Princeton, it was not unprecedented. Due to war or epidemic, Princeton has ceased normal operations several times.


1776-1777: Revolutionary War

The earliest records we have found related to students leaving campus because of a threat are from 1776. On November 29, 1776, John Witherspoon called the students of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) together to formally dismiss them so they could flee the rapidly approaching British army. Taking only what they could carry with them and leaving the rest to become spoils of war, the students said good-bye to one another and left campus.

Nassau Hall, New American Magazine, 1760. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

 


1832: Cholera

The first illness to have caused campus to close that we know of was a global cholera pandemic. Classes ended early and Commencement was called off. The Board of Trustees recorded this in their minutes for their September 25, 1832 meeting:

Excerpt from the Minutes of the Board of Trustees of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), September 25, 1832. (See transcript below.) Board of Trustees Records (A120), Volume 3.

The Committee appointed to attend the examination of the Senior Class Reported, that by reason of the alarm occasioned by the threatened approach of Pestilence, it became impossible to keep any of the College Classes together, in consequence of which the examination was omitted.

The minutes of the Faculty for August 7, 1832 and September 12, 1832 give more details of what happened:

Excerpt from the Minutes of the Faculty of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), Summer Session 1832 (see transcript below). Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118), Volume 3.

[August 7]

Agreeably to a resolution of the Faculty a printed letter was sent to the parents & guardians of the students informing them that, in consequence of the dispersion of nearly all the students, the Exercises of College have been suspended, & that, whenever it shall be deemed to be safe & expedient for the students to return, due notice will be given.

 

[September 12]

By order of the Faculty, letters were sent to the parents & guardians of the students, giving them notice that the next session of College will commence on Thursday the 11th of October next.

Degrees were awarded to the Class of 1832 in absentia.


1861-1865: Civil War

We’ve previously told you about the significant number of students who left Princeton in 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War. Although classes were still being offered on campus, some students, like Josias Hawkins of the Class of 1861, had to complete their degrees at home.


1871: Smallpox

Panic among parents after a student was diagnosed with smallpox in 1871 promoted James McCosh to end the school year two weeks early. The Nassau Literary Review observed

Everybody feared, or pretended to fear everybody else, and ‘vaccination’ and ‘small pox’ were the principal topics.


1880: Typhoid

In 1880, a typhoid (“enteric fever”) epidemic killed 10 (out of the total 473) students at Princeton, which among other things meant that the semester ended a few weeks early. From April through July, about 40 Princeton residents fell ill with what public health officials later deemed to have been typhoid. The cause was apparently a combination of contaminated well water and improper drainage of sewage from campus buildings and boarding houses.


1916: Polio

The start of classes was delayed until October 10 in 1916 in an effort to curb a particularly deadly polio epidemic. Five days after the late start of classes, a 17-year-old freshman who had entered that week as part of the class of 1920, Eric Brünnow, died of polio. This was the only case of polio among student body and among the families of faculty and staff. Although the infirmary’s physicians traced the point of infection to Brünnow’s travels that summer (including a trip to New York), rather than having been contracted locally, the campus naturally felt a strong sense of alarm.The Princeton Alumni Weekly attributed a drop in freshman enrollment, down 14% from the previous year, to widespread concerns about the polio epidemic.


1970: Vietnam War

In 1970, following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the University suspended final exams in May as part of an overall university protest strike, and students were allowed to complete their work the following October.

A large group of people, some holding flags. In the foreground, a man is wearing a t-shirt with "STRIKE" written over a closed fist on the back.

Strike Rally at Princeton, May 1970. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP095, Image. No. 1942.

 


Though wars and epidemics have shut Princeton down several times over the past centuries, Princeton weathered others by significantly adjusting operations. Classes went on during the flu pandemics of 1918 and 1957 and World War I and World War II, but daily life on campus was radically different for those who were here then. In an institution with a history as long as ours, it is perhaps more surprising that significant disruptions have been as uncommon as they have been.

Sources:

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Fourth Annual Report of the Board of Health of the State of New Jersey, 1880. Camden: Sinnickson Chew, 1881.

Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118)

Papers of Princeton

 

For further reading:

Armstrong, April. “1957 Epidemics at Princeton.”

Armstrong, April C. “‘The Present Unsettled State of Our Country’: Princeton and the Civil War.”

Armstrong, April C. “The Year Princeton University Delayed the Start of Classes until October 10.”

Armstrong, April C. and Allie Lichterman. “Princeton University During World War II.”

Bernstein, Mark F. “Why Princeton Was Spared.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 17, 2008.

Shen, Spencer. “Princeton University During World War I.”

van Rossum, Helene. “The Princeton Strike, 1970.”

Debating Race at Princeton in the 1940s, Part II: Roundtable News and the Liberal Union

This is the second post in a two-part series examining Princeton University’s debates over admitting African Americans in the 1940s. These debates began in earnest due to the dedication of one undergraduate in the Class of 1943, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick, whose efforts were the focus of the first post in this series. Here, I examine what our holdings reveal about Broderick’s legacy on campus toward the end of World War II and in the early postwar period.

By April C. Armstrong *14

To my teachers and friends on the Princeton faculty
and
my colleagues on the Daily Princetonian
who are fighting against white supremacy at Princeton

–Francis Broderick’s senior thesis dedication page, 1943

As his senior thesis suggests, Frank Broderick wasn’t alone in his fight to transform what it meant to be a Princetonian. After his graduation from Princeton, discussion of race on campus continued in his absence throughout World War II and beyond. Others made arguments similar to the ones Broderick had made about the conflicts between the ideals Americans were fighting for abroad and their own practices at home. These students also met resistance from fellow Princetonians, but in the process, changed opinions. They weren’t content to simply make arguments, however. They took action and set Princeton on a new trajectory.

James Everett Ward ’47 and Arthur Jewell Wilson ’47 outside Laughlin Hall, 1946. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP215, Image No. 5644.

A few students wrote editorials in Princeton’s Roundtable News in 1944. Like Broderick had before them in the Daily Princetonian, which largely suspended publication 1943-1945, they pushed readers to make connections between the war abroad and domestic policy. In the March 23, 1944, issue of Roundtable, John Kemeny ’47 *49 accused Princetonians of “copying the Nazi party” in their “hysterical” responses to the admission of African American naval officers in 1943. Kemeny referred to having heard students “talk about forming lynching parties” after their arrival. Edward Kessler ’44 called for an end to discriminatory policies in the April 27, 1944 issue, asking, “How can we fight a world war to destroy the race theory and propagate the very same theory at home?” Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Jr. ’43 responded that he was “astonished” that Kemeny and others made these arguments, and that racial prejudice was no greater threat to democracy than lust or egotism. Debates continued, but a catalyst for tangible change didn’t arrive until after the war’s end.

John Bunzel ’46, whose education had been interrupted by his service in World War II, returned to campus in 1946 to finish his final two years of college. He later said his time in the Army had sparked a passion for civil rights. He led Princeton University students who shared Broderick’s commitments to form the Liberal Union in 1946 and served as its president until his graduation in 1948. Continue reading

Debating Race at Princeton in the 1940s, Part I: Francis L. Broderick ’43

This is the first post in a two-part series examining Princeton University’s debates over admitting African Americans in the 1940s, which began in earnest partly due to the dedication of one undergraduate in the Class of 1943, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick.

By April C. Armstrong *14 and Dan Linke

Francis Lyons (“Frank”) Broderick, Class of 1943. Photo from 1943 Nassau Herald.

At first glance, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick ’43 looks like a typical mid-century Princetonian, not someone you’d expect to be at the center of a movement to upend his own institution’s admissions policies. His father was president of the East River Savings Bank in New York City, and the family lived on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side. Broderick attended Phillips Academy and had two older brothers who both attended Princeton as well. What may have set him somewhat apart from many of his classmates is that he listed himself as Catholic and an Independent Democrat in the Nassau Herald at a time when the majority of Princeton undergraduates were Protestant and Republican. He was also the first student to graduate from Princeton’s then-fledgling interdisciplinary Program in American Civilization, and wrote in the preface to his senior thesis that English professor Willard Thorp *26’s edited two-volume set, American Issues, inspired him to look more closely at race in the United States. Continue reading

Faculty Wives and the Push for Coeducation at Princeton University

Coeducation brought female students to Princeton, but it didn’t bring the first women. There have always been women connected with the institution. Nonetheless, coeducation did change the lives of the women who were already here. Esther Edwards Burr, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, and Isabella McCosh, wives of three Princeton presidents from earlier centuries, have all received historians’ attention as individuals, but the ways in which faculty wives as a group shaped and reshaped Princeton has not been fully explored. As Princeton celebrates its 50th anniversary year of undergraduate coeducation, it is worth looking back at some of the women who pushed hardest to end male-only hegemony: the ones who married the men who taught on Princeton’s campus.

Princeton held its centennial Commencement in 1847. To celebrate, women in town–probably faculty wives–hosted a reception. Samuel Reeves of the Class of 1837 described it in the New York Observer (July 3, 1847): “The accomplished ladies of the Faculty gave a Levee in the evening…The ladies received the throng of invited guests with elegance and grace, while the entertainment of the evening was of unusual richness, displaying the taste and refinement of those under whose direction this splendid affair was arranged and conducted.” (Menu for reception given in honor of the centennial Commencement of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), June 30, 1847. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 307, Folder 11.)

It can be hard to uncover many of their names even now, as records are often found filed among their husbands’ papers in the University Archives or otherwise obscured by their scattered presence across diverse collections. The women who lived in town because of their husbands’ teaching careers at Princeton University did not always find the institution itself particularly welcoming to them, but they formed their own communities and found ways to pursue their own passions despite an environment they often described as outright hostile. Ultimately, Princeton University’s first regularly enrolled female student came from their ranks. Continue reading

Whatever Happened to “The Vigil”?

By Iliyah Coles ’22

I have been looking for information about The Vigil, a minority newspaper that the University published in the late twentieth century. As a black student at a predominantly-white institution, I wanted to see what the newspaper would be about and how effectively it incorporated voices not usually heard. After researching and reading several of its later publications, I was offended by many things that I found. Expression within the paper seemed to be limited–confined to what was deemed acceptable during the time period. I was ultimately disappointed with my discoveries, but I still wanted to share them with others so that readers could become more aware of the racial tensions that persist even in the most unlikely of places. 

The Vigil, written for and mostly by minorities, was first published in 1980. The Third World Center (now known as the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality + Cultural Understanding) supported the paper. According to the Daily PrincetonianThe Vigil had been discontinued several times over the span of six years, mostly due to financial issues and infrequent publication. Though I was not able to determine why the newspaper was discontinued the last time (seemingly in 1999), there are some red flags, mostly in the articles written on black people, that might have had something to do with its failure to achieve broader support.  

Cover of The Vigil, February 1995. Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC364), Box 1.

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Princeton’s Bulletin Elm

By Zachary Bampton ’20 with April C. Armstrong *14

On September 29, 1882, one writer for the Princetonian (then published every other week rather than daily) remarked that the Bulletin Elm was “fast filling out its days” and would soon be “a thing of the past”. Almost 140 years later, few remember the role the Bulletin Elm played in Princeton tradition. It was a physical bulletin for generations of students, and then for nearly forty years, a section of our campus newspaper bore its name. Looking back more than a century now, we hope to shine some light on this fabled tree and probe its place in our historical memory.

Princeton’s Bulletin Elm, ca. 1880. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP007, Image No. 160.

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Suicide, Princeton University, and Emotional Labor in Public Services

Though it may not be obvious to most of the people who use our library, work in special collections often includes playing a role in someone’s grieving process. Archivists have begun talking about the ways in which interacting with donors puts them in the position of providing comfort to the bereaved, but this is also work performed by those who interact with researchers. For those of us in public services, this usually means providing information about the deceased to those in mourning. One kind of loss, however, is distinct from the others, and the emotional labor for me working with these patrons is different, too.

We confront human mortality on a daily basis in the archives. Many records, after all, cannot be viewed during a person’s lifetime. Death comes into the picture in a variety of ways, but reference inquiries about suicides are usually phrased without the same clarity as other types of questions, as though speaking of suicide itself will injure the person making the inquiry. Though I have responded to several people who have called or emailed Mudd Library looking for information about someone who committed suicide, I have yet to speak to or read an email from anyone who disclosed the fact of a suicide up front. Instead, they tend to ask about “someone who died” or even just “someone I knew.”

My own emotions surface at unexpected news of a suicide in ways they do not when I am caught by surprise about the news of other kinds of unexpected deaths, a phenomenon psychologists label “transference.” Though I may remember the unusual circumstance of someone’s demise I uncover in my research if it is especially noteworthy—such as an alum who electrocuted himself trying to install a TV antenna—they are far less personally provocative. I cannot recall their names; a week or so passes and new questions push them away. This is not so with suicide. One example that particularly stands out in my mind came in almost two years ago, just after the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2016), when an elderly alum wrote to ask a seemingly innocuous question: Did a Princeton student die in a train accident immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor?

Frank Birney ’42’s entry in the 1942 Nassau Herald.

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Princeton’s Summer Trips Across North America

Although traveling significant distances is routine for many Princetonians these days, traversing North America was not always as easy as it is now. Our records reveal a variety of both academic and pleasure trips over the years that have used horses, trains, cars, and bicycles to reach their destinations.

Most of the lengthy North American journeys Princetonians took in the 19th century were scientific expeditions, starting with the astronomical expeditions of the early part of century. Most of those were along the east coast, but in July and August 1869, with help from institutional and federal funding, a group of Princetonians took trains to Ottumwa, Iowa, to view a total solar eclipse. It took nearly five days to reach Ottumwa and three days to return. One student later wrote that aside from the spectacular event of the eclipse itself, “The great impression I received was concerning the magnitude of our country. We had passed through very varied scenery for nights and days, travelling over a country large enough to comprise all the kingdoms of Europe, all teeming with life and prosperity, and yet had only passed over about one-third of the extent…”

The first Geological Expedition took its participants (18 students and two professors) further into the American west on an 11-week trek to Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah in the summer of 1877. Three Princeton juniors (William Berryman Scott, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Francis Speir) had taken a geology course with Arnold Guyot and had read reports about fossil-collection trips Yale had taken. They were determined that Princeton should not be left out of these types of adventures and convinced others to join them.

They took a train to Denver. Princeton had two cars of its own, one for baggage and one for passengers. The expedition party boarded at the Dinky station at about 8:00PM on June 21 and arrived in Denver on June 25 after a few stops along the way, including Chicago and Kansas City. In his memoir, Some Memories of a Palaeontologist, Scott described the journey this way:

Of our journey, novel to most of us though it was, there was not much to be said. The Middle West was not then the busy, prosperous region it has since become, and the principal impression which it made upon me then was one of crudeness and shabbiness. The roads were quagmires of black mud; the towns were chiefly of wood and sadly in need of paint and, though there were a great many fine-looking farms, the journey was a depressing experience. (p. 60-61)

In Denver, the faculty secured horses and wagons and the group set up camp just outside the city, then a town of about 25,000 people, for a few days, where one traveler wrote that they “slept soundly in our blankets using our saddles as pillows.”

The Princeton Scientific Expedition camping out at Fairplay, Colorado, in the summer of 1877. Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection (AC012), Box 3, Folder 2.

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“Studying Is Fine, but Living Has Been Another Problem”: Mary Procter *71 and Coeducation at Princeton

Earlier this year, I began telling the story of the female graduate students who paved the way for undergraduate coeducation at Princeton University starting in 1961. This blog continues that story with a focus on Mary Procter *71 (often misspelled as Mary Proctor *71) and her unusually influential role while a Princeton graduate student.

Procter got then-Provost William Bowen’s attention with a 1968 letter to the Daily Princetonian that took campus men to task for their treatment of the few undergraduate women who were in Princeton classrooms at the time as exchange students in the Critical Languages Program. Procter made vague reference to the fact that the band had referred to these women as “cunning linguists” and made other crude jokes about them during the halftime show at the Princeton-Harvard game. Anonymously signing her letter as simply “Female Graduate Student,” Procter had written, “I had always thought that men’s universities produced men, lusty and bawdy if you will, but not sniggering sickly creatures, obsessed with double meanings which suggest that they are not interested in girls so much as lollipops or bits of mashed potato.” Procter later said she wrote in to the Prince because she was “furious” and felt “Princeton does not deserve to be coed.”

Jackie Johnson *70, Katie Marshall *69, and Mary Procter *71. Photo from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 13, 1969.

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An American University: An Audio Portrait of Princeton in 1946

By: Abbie Minard ’20

Abbie Minard ’20 is a history concentrator with a primary interest in early American history. On campus, she is a research associate at the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, music director and a DJ at WPRB, artistic director of the TapCats (tap dancing group), and a member of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra. She is also a poet with a love for dada and experimental performance.

As a part the exhibition, Learning to Fight and Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War, we digitized a half hour BBC radio broadcast from 1946 that featured Princeton University for an audio portrait of university life in the United States.  The program, titled “An American University,” was one half of a radio exchange program with Oxford on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

The audio included in the segment was recorded in November and December as Princeton celebrated its bicentennial anniversary.  It features a wide array of Princeton voices, covering university history, academics, residential, and social life, with spotlights on the football team and the glee club, whose musical interludes are interspersed throughout the program.

We selected photographs from our collections to accompany the audio for this video.

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