A century later: Cornell College adapts to another pandemic

As spring arrives during the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Cornell College campus is devoid of students and profoundly quiet. Yet classes go on—just as they have continuously since 1853, through the Civil War, both world wars, and previous pandemics.

SATC inspection in 1918
The Cornell College Student Army Training Corps runs inspection on First Street West near campus in 1918 (1920 Royal Purple).

Faculty and students are busy teaching and learning, now from home offices and kitchen tables across the country and around the world. 

Cornell moved quickly to announce distance learning in response to the looming novel coronavirus pandemic. Faculty retooled their courses during an extended spring break. Except for a few essential employees on campus, staff are working from home. Behind locked doors, student rooms are frozen in time from when their occupants left for what they thought was a brief spring break. 

As unusual as this situation is, Cornell experienced an even more dramatic upheaval in 1918–1919. 

The school year arrived after a lull in the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic that would strike one-third of the world’s population. The deadly flu, however, wasn’t the biggest disruption at Cornell that year. 

SATC Infirmary
An S.A.T.C. infirmary was set up in the house at 410 First St. SW, just off campus and near Altoona Hall, which then served as one of the barracks (1920 Royal Purple).

World War I was raging in Europe. Cornell classes began late, on Oct. 1, because of the formation of a Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) on campus. The college introduced military training and an army-prescribed curriculum. By requirement of the S.A.T.C., classes switched from semesters to trimesters.

The flu epidemic returned after classes began. Of the 135 cadets, more than 100 contracted the flu and were housed in an infirmary set up in the house at 410 First St. SW, just off campus and near Altoona Hall, which then served as one of the barracks. According to “Cornell College: A Sesquicentennial History,” the pandemic forced the cancellation of many college and community events as a preventive measure against the spread. No deaths were reported among the S.A.T.C. or on campus.

The student newspaper, The Cornellian, reported frequently about quarantines. The front page of the Oct. 22, 1918, issue noted a quarantine for which all non-S.A.T.C. students were given assignments for study in their rooms.

A week later the Oct. 29, 1918, edition carried a story about the quarantine in place both on campus and in Mount Vernon. In anticipation of its end, plans were being made for an All-College Masquerade, a sociology picnic, “and also a continuance of the rushing stunts.” The article said merchants were preparing for a run on stores, since “most students are anxiously awaiting the notice that they may roam about as they please.”

On Dec. 17, two days before winter break, The Cornellian reported that the college (apparently not including the S.A.T.C.) had mostly been spared of the flu.

“During all this period when the influenza has raged continuously at other colleges, Cornell has been practically immune,” according to the article. “Although a few cases developed, not one death resulted either in the S.A.T.C. or among the rest of the student body.” 

The lead story in that issue, however, illustrates another dark reality of that year. Roe Howard ’17, perhaps Cornell’s greatest war hero, was dead. Other Cornellians had preceded him.

Article in the Jan. 22, 1918, Cornellian student newspaper.
Article in the Jan. 22, 1918, Cornellian student newspaper.

Finally, the college considered closing early that fall because of a coal shortage. The student newspaper issued numerous complaints of frigid classrooms and the Cornell Music Conservatory canceled its “Messiah” performance because King Chapel was closed and the heat turned off. President Flint asked all students to work 20% harder for the final two weeks before break, completing as much coursework as possible, so the school year would not be extended further into June.

Things improved somewhat after winter break. Flint visited coal companies in Chicago and the Jan. 22, 1919, Cornellian reported that, “unless something unforeseen arises, and if great economy is still observed, the College will be able to get through the winter alright.”

The 1920 Royal Purple yearbook (published in 1919 by the Class of 1920) looked back on the last several years, observing that a late start to that school year and the presence of the S.A.T.C. “changed school life considerably.” It also mentioned another, different epidemic.

“The roars of the great conflict,” it noted regarding the wartime era, “were actually forgotten when the school was gripped in the throes of the scarlet fever epidemic.” 

That epidemic broke out on campus in early 1917. Two women were quarantined in Bowman Hall and taken care of by their mothers, while several others stricken with the disease were quarantined in their rooming houses in town. All  meetings other than class were banned by the college.

All in all, 1918–1919 (not to mention the spring of 1917) was a challenging time on the Hilltop. 

But then, as now, the college adapted and its students set themselves to learning despite their circumstances.