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.”

This Week in Princeton History for January 6-12

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, many are curious about a veil hanging outside a window, undergraduates write poetry about their fears of a chickenpox epidemic, and more.

January 6, 1877—A green veil hanging outside a Dickinson Hall window sparks curiosity.

Dickinson Hall, ca. 1870s. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP037, Image No. 1063.

January 7, 1940—Undergraduates hang a poem on the doorknob of Princeton president Harold W. Dodds’s office expressing fears of a chickenpox epidemic and requesting that classes be called off to prevent it:

Chicken pox’ll get us;

It’s a dangerous disease.

There should be two weeks’ recess;

Give it to us, please.

January 8, 1990—For the first time, Princeton’s faculty begins the process of revoking a Ph.D. The student’s dissertation has been found to have been extensively plagiarized.

January 11, 1817—Students from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) join with students from Princeton Theological Seminary to form a tract society.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for July 8-14

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Princetonian reappears after an epidemic, Robert Goheen anticipates racial tension on campus, and more.

July 9, 1880—In an issue delayed for weeks due to an epidemic of typhoid, the Princetonian acknowledges that the abrupt breakup of the spring session meant that there had been no opportunity for the community to grieve the loss of the 10 students who died, and offers space in its future columns for testimonials about the lives lost.

July 12, 1950—Air Force Lt. Douglas Haag ’49 is probably the first Princeton alum to die in action in the Korean War, but his remains will not be identified until 2013.

July 13, 1970—The New York Times runs an article on a panel of college presidents discussing their institutions, quoting Princeton University’s Robert Goheen: “Under the general heading of student unrest, we think we’re going to have increasing problems in the current year with our blacks…It’s going to be a long time, I think, before we work out the modes of accommodations for blacks in our universities.”

Robert F. Goheen (center) with student attendees of “The Future of the Negro Undergraduate” conference, March 30, 1967. Office of the President Records (AC193), Box 456, Folder 7.

July 14, 1793—Town and gown celebrate Bastille Day with a ball and supper at the College Inn (later known as the Nassau Inn).

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for September 17-23

In this week’s installment of our returning series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the campus remembers Aaron Burr, Nassau Hall celebrates its bicentennial, and more.

September 17, 1836—At Aaron Burr’s funeral in the College of New Jersey’s Chapel, College president James Carnahan is careful to avoid inflaming controversy. Burr’s connection to Princeton and his “honorable parentage” are both noted, but his public career is “delicately touched, with only such allusions to his duel with [Alexander] Hamilton as might be of service to the assembly without wounding the feelings of any.” After the closing prayers, the funeral procession buries Burr at the foot of his father’s grave in the cemetery on what will later be named Hamilton Avenue.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 21-27

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a rally pushes for the expulsion of repeat sexual harassers, the New Jersey State Board of Health investigates a typhoid outbreak, and more.

May 22, 1931—The Daily Princetonian laments the suicide of influential cartoonist Ralph Barton and notes it reflects a larger societal phenomenon. “Among the more sensitive, which naturally includes men of talent and genius, this psychopathic condition is as common as measles. … The germ is in the age itself…and no-one has yet found means to combat it.” (Those interested in the work of Ralph Barton can find examples at Firestone Library in the Graphic Arts Collection.)

May 23, 1988—Students hold a demonstration advocating the expulsion of those who repeatedly engage in sexual harassment.

Flyer advertising rally, May 23, 1988. Women’s Center Records (AC248), Box 1.

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This Week in Princeton History for December 4-10

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, dorm residents “grope their way in the darkness,” an epidemic halts the swim team, and more.

December 5, 1878—The Princetonian complains about the lack of lighting in Reunion Hall: “Another term is almost gone, and the students rooming in those entries are still compelled to grope their way in the darkness.”

Reunion Hall, undated. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045), Box 1.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 8-14

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) delights the campus with a surprise appearance, protests greet a segregationist governor’s visit, and more.

May 8, 1989—A freshman diagnosed with the measles is admitted to the McCosh Health Center, prompting approximately 500 students to get a booster vaccine to prevent an outbreak on campus.

May 9, 1901—Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) surprises students with an unadvertised appearance in Alexander Hall, where he gives a reading of his work and entertains the crowd with stories about his adventures in Nevada and his attempts to learn German.

This letter from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), most likely to Stephen Van Rennseler Throwbridge, Class of 1902, dates from ca. 1901 and seems to accept an invitation to speak at Princeton “as long as one would only have to talk, & not have to talk long, nor make preparation.” Pyne-Henry Collection (AC125), Box 2, Folder 1.

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This Week in Princeton History for March 27-April 2

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, eastern colleges convene to discuss the future of African Americans, a new invention draws interest, and more.

March 27, 1972—A petition to end coeducation is circulating among undergraduates, the Daily Princetonian reports, quoting one student: “I think college should be an ivory tower, and adding girls isn’t necessary.”

March 28, 1871—After one student is diagnosed with smallpox, panic on campus and among parents of current students prompts College of New Jersey (Princeton) president James McCosh to end the term two weeks early. He sends the students home.

March 30, 1967—150 delegates representing 65 Eastern colleges convene at Princeton University for the first conference of its kind to discuss “The Future of the Negro Undergraduate.”

Robert F. Goheen (center) with student attendees of “The Future of the Negro Undergraduate” conference, March 30, 1967. Office of the President Records (AC193), Box 456, Folder 7.

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This Week in Princeton History for August 22-28

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a 1906 postcard gives a weather update, a Canadian library honors a Princeton president, and more.

August 23, 1906—Someone writes and sends a postcard to let a friend know that “The day is hot and the locusts are singing” at Princeton.

Blair_Hall_Postcard_AC045_Box_3

Historical Postcard Collection (AC045), Box 3.

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This Week in Princeton History for January 4-10

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the school’s president petitions Bill Clinton for an end to a “discriminatory policy,” Nassau Hall gets new tigers, and more.

January 4, 1836—Two students “having been detected in having ardent spirits in their rooms” are asked to withdraw from the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

January 5, 1993—Princeton University president Harold Shapiro signs a letter along with 66 other American university presidents urging U.S. President Bill Clinton to remove the ban on homosexuals in the military as a “discriminatory policy” that “is antithetical to our institutions’ commitment to respect for individuals, as well as for equal access and opportunity.” The action invites intense criticism for Shapiro.

Harold_Shapiro_1993_Bric

Harold Shapiro, ca. 1993. Photo from the 1993 Bric-a-Brac.

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