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 20-26

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Graduate School reports increased diversity, gym users ask for protection from prying eyes, and more.

January 20, 1949—At “the first 11:00 catharsis in 15 years,” students celebrate the end of final exams with flaming tennis balls and a mock war.

January 21, 1970—The Daily Princetonian reports on an increase in the diversity of the Graduate School’s student population: Black enrollment, at 2.5% (38 students), is seven times what it was in 1967 and a 50% increase in the number of women since 1966 has brought the total number of female graduate students to 200.

Graph showing Graduate School enrollment 1964-1972. Graduate School Records (AC127), Box 67.

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This Week in Princeton History for August 26-September 1

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Chinese students come together, dogs are banned on campus, and more.

August 26, 1933—To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Continental Congress formally thanking George Washington for his conduct in the Revolutionary War, Nassau Hall is fully illuminated, a throwback to when students used to light each window with a candle to celebrate significant days.

August 27, 1779—The adjutant-general of the Continental Army authorizes Thomas Bradford, Deputy Commissary of Prisoners, to deliver “to the Reverend Dr. Witherspoon, two prisoners of war of the 71st British regiment, to labour for him at Princeton…”

August 30, 1911—The seventh annual conference of the Chinese Students’ Alliance of the Eastern States concludes its meetings at Princeton with words of encouragement from John Grier Hibben.

The 1910s brought many Chinese students to colleges in the United States, including Princeton University, as part of the Boxer Indemnity Fund’s scholarship program. Here, the Class of 1915 Eating Club pose for a group photo, including Kenyon Vanlee Dzung and Ken Wang in the front row, ca. 1914. By 1914, the Princetonian reported that there were seven Chinese students on campus. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box LP070, Image No. 4159.

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A Round Up of Princeton History for July 2-8 and Independence Day

The “Demystifying Mudd” series has been delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. We hope we can bring it to you next week. In the meantime, here is a round up of tidbits we’ve collected over the past several years to highlight events in Princeton University history for July 2-8 and some more in-depth looks at the impact of the American War for Independence on the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

In 2015, we told you about the death of Jimmy Stewart ’32, students who returned after doing a good deed to find their rooms had been ransacked, and a professor who won an Olympic medal for shooting.

In 2016, we reported on the Princeton Blues beginning the “Cannon War” with Rutgers, George Whitefield’s visit to campus, and a program to train every student for war.

1910 postcard by Christie Whiteman. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045), Box 4

In 2017, we showed you photos of the student who was the youngest person ever elected to a school board in the United States and a student who had a 20-game winning streak on Jeopardy.

If you’d like some in-depth stories appropriate to celebrate the American Independence Day, you might want to read about how Nassau Hall and the Rittenhouse Orrery were damaged in the Battle of Princeton. You might also be interested in learning more about how the cannons left behind have shaped Princeton’s traditions.

We look forward to demystifying ourselves soon. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday!

This Week in Princeton History for April 16-22

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a young professor dies of AIDS, the Princetonian begins publishing every other day, and more.

April 16, 1995—Assistant professor of English Walter C. Hughes, age 34, dies of AIDS.

Walter C. Hughes, ca. 1990s. Photo from the Princeton Weekly Bulletin.

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This Week in Princeton History for January 1-7

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Baker Memorial Rink opens, the status of graduate alumni is in dispute, and more.

January 1, 1891—Students gather to ring in the new year, but become so absorbed in their recreational activities that they mostly fail to notice that midnight has come and gone. Undeterred from their original plan, they march through town in the early hours of the morning and wake residents with loud singing and horn blasts.

January 3, 1777—George Washington and the Continental Army defeat the British at the Battle of Princeton.

Princeton long celebrated Washington’s birthday as a major holiday. Programs for the day’s events like this one from 1897 usually commemorated his 1777 victory on the Princeton campus. Washington’s Birthday Records (AC200).

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This Week in Princeton History for February 13-19

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a professor starts a controversial contraceptive hotline, the campus agrees on a method for resisting the British crown, and more.

February 13, 1967—Vassar’s debate team argues the merits of coeducation in Whig Hall. Vassar’s team, arguing that Princeton should educate women, wins by a vote of 36-11. Both single-gender schools will ultimately become fully coeducational in the same year (1969).

A member of the Vassar debate team makes her argument in Whig Hall, February 13, 1969. Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

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This Week in Princeton History for November 28-December 4

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, residents flee Nassau Hall, Theodore Roosevelt goes to a football game, and more.

November 29, 1776—John Witherspoon calls all the students of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) together in the Prayer Hall in Nassau Hall to dismiss them to safety. Taking what they can carry with them and leaving the rest to become spoils of war for the rapidly approaching British soldiers, the students say good-bye to one another and take flight from campus.

1760_New_American_Magazine_AC177_Box_1

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

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This Week in Princeton History for July 18-24

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a group is disciplined for a bovine prank, an alumnus opens the Democratic National Convention, and more.

July 18, 1790—Three students are expelled and a fourth is disciplined for an incident the previous June 26 in which, following an evening of drinking at David Hamilton’s Tavern, they put a calf in the pulpit of Nassau Hall.

July 21, 1952—Adlai Stevenson ’22, governor of Illinois, opens the Democratic National Convention. Five days later, he will accept its nomination as United States president.

DNC_1952_MC124_Box_226_Folder_5

Democratic National Committee campaign handbook, 1952. Adlai Stevenson Papers (MC124), Box 226, Folder 5.

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This Week in Princeton History for June 20-26

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the first collegiate track contest is held on campus, Japanese visitors ceremonially forgive scientists for their role in the development of the atomic bomb, and more.

June 20, 1779—William Richardson Davie (Class of 1776) leads a charge against the British at the Battle of Stono Ferry. He is wounded and falls off his horse, but evades capture.

June 21, 1873—The first collegiate track contest in the United States is held at the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

Caledonian_Games_June_21_AC042_Box_17

Program from Caledonian Games, College of New Jersey (Princeton), June 21, 1873. Athletic Programs Collection (AC042), Box 17, Folder 1.

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