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1957 Epidemics at Princeton

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)

Infirmary Admissions graphic
Data taken from Report of the Committee on Health and Athletics for October 17, 1958 (found in the Board of Trustees Records).

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.

Although a vaccine did exist by the time classes began, it had a priority list, and Princeton students were pretty far down on it. The first person to receive it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on August 26. It then trickled down through various government officials and public employees, and then, finally, to ordinary citizens, like Princeton’s students. Despite being 45-60% effective, the vaccine didn’t do much good for most people, since they could not get inoculated in time.

The Prince ran daily articles on the flu epidemic as Princetonians watched and waited for the inevitable wave of what was colloquially called “heavy grippe” hit the campus. The students, alarmed by the news of what was happening at other northeastern colleges, began heading out to plead with hometown physicians for the vaccine, but few were able to get it. The first sign of the illness came to the University on Friday, October 4, 1957, and became a serious problem the following Monday, October 7. At nearby Princeton High School, an alarming 30% of students were home with the flu. Dr. Wilbur H. York, Chairman of the Department of Health (now University Health Services), began making plans for annexing the Student Center (Chancellor Green) for use as an emergency infirmary ward. A shortage of nurses delayed the implementation of York’s plan, so instead, students began bedding down in the infirmary’s corridors until a corps of volunteers could be assembled.

Beds in the Student Center
Photo from The Daily Princetonian.

On October 17, York officially annexed the Student Center to the infirmary. Dean of Students William Lippincott (’41) asked students to voluntarily suspend weekend socializing, especially at eating clubs. As the Student Center also began filling up, the University developed further contingency plans to use the eating clubs to house the sick, which they were never forced to implement. Janitors were instructed to check dorm rooms for students too ill to seek treatment. Town and gown worked together to make it through the trying flu season as 21 nurses from the Red Cross joined a corps of student volunteers who came to aid their ailing classmates.

Student Center keep out sign
Photo from The Daily Princetonian.

The vaccine for H2N2 influenza, which included innoculation against more familiar strains of the illness, arrived on campus on October 28. Students were offered the shots at a cost of one dollar (which would be about eight dollars today). Since at least one student contracted the flu twice that semester, York urged all students, whether they had already had the flu or not that year, to go ahead and get the vaccine. A total of 1,176 students heeded York’s advice and purchased the flu innoculation. At last, the spread of illness began to drop off, and the infirmary annex closed, reopening the Student Center for more typical purposes on November 6. Ultimately, the epidemic lasted throughout the first half of November, although it had begun tailing off by Halloween. A total of 810 students, or 25% of the undergraduates and 10% of the graduate students, fell ill with the flu during that roughly six-week span in 1957. Although there may have been some defiant souls coughing away in Firestone Library like the quoted excerpt from the PAW claimed, the vast majority of them—607—required inpatient care.

The Bric-a-Brac summed it up: “The Ivy League was smothered with illness, but the worst thing that happened to Princeton was a 12-10 loss to Colgate.” Princeton emerged largely unscathed, but not all were so fortunate. In the United States, H2N2 influenza killed approximately 60,000 people, with students at Yale, Cornell, and Colgate among them. Worldwide, the death toll is estimated to have been about 2 million.

Still, Princeton wasn’t quite out of the woods, health-wise, for academic year 1957-1958. Our astute readers will see another, smaller increase in infirmary admissions in the spring of 1958 on the graph above, when from January-June, the Committee on Health and Athletics reported to the Board of Trustees, “we were plagued with a moderate sized epidemic of German measles [rubella], 223 cases in all.” A much more mild illness than H2N2 influenza in most cases, this outbreak of rubella was less distressing for the campus and warranted fewer headlines.

Princeton University Sources:

100 Cases of Influenza Reported as University Expects Full Epidemic.” Daily Princetonian 15 October 1957.

Bric-a-Brac, Vol. 80 (1958). Princeton University: Princeton, New Jersey.

Campus Flu Cases Drop; Center Has 56 Patients.” Daily Princetonian 18 October 1957.

Epidemic Drop Seen; Flu Cases Go Down.” Daily Princetonian 22 October 1957.

Emergency Influenza Ward Shut Down at Student Center.” Daily Princetonian 6 November 1957.

Flu Flushed; Social Events Still Planned.” Daily Princetonian 23 October 1957.

Flu Vaccine Finally Here York Claims.” Daily Princetonian 24 October 1957.

Meserve, Hamilton W. “Campus Braces for Asian Flu; Epidemics Hit Eastern Colleges.Daily Princetonian 9 October 1957.

Meserve, Hamilton W. “Campus Flu Subsides; New Outbreak Feared.” Daily Princetonian 14 October 1957.

Meserve, Hamilton W. “Flu Cases Rise to 79, Emergency Possible.” Daily Princetonian 10 October 1957.

Meserve, Hamilton W. “Student Center Influenza Ward Reopened as Cases Reach 64.” Daily Princetonian 30 October 1957.

Meserve, Hamilton W. “Student Center Set to Become Flu Ward if Epidemic Strikes.” Daily Princetonian 11 October 1957.

Meserve, Hamilton W. “York Sees Follow-Up Epidemic Hitting Campus in Six Weeks.” Daily Princetonian 28 October 1957.

“On the Campus,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 58, no. 6 (25 October 1957): 10.

“On the Campus.” Princeton Alumni Weekly 58, no. 7 (1 November 1957): 15.

“Report of the Committee on Health and Athletics,” Minutes of the Trustees of Princeton University, Vol. 56 (October 1957-June 1958), Board of Trustees Records, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.

Ridgeway, James F. “Flu Leaves Campus; Bug Restricts Smith.” Daily Princetonian 25 October 1957.

Ridgeway, James F. “New Flu Cases Drop; 30 in Emergency Ward But Increses Feared.” Daily Princetonian 21 October 1957.

Ridgeway, James F. “Officials Switch Student Center to Emergency Influenza Ward.” Daily Princetonian 17 October 1957.

Pneumonia Case Here Reported Past Danger.” Daily Princetonian 4 November 1957.

Ridgeway, James F. “Student Center Reopens for Undergraduate Use.” Daily Princetonian 29 October 1957.

Ridgeway, James F. “University Cancels Weekend Social Events as Campus Flu Epidemic Keeps Spreading.” Daily Princetonian 16 October 1957.


External Sources:

Asian Flu Hits Campus.” (Princeton) Town Topics 20 October 1957.

Brown, David. “Lessons from the Flu of ’57: Pandemic Spread Quickly Among Young People.” Washington Post 25 August 2009.

Flat Foot Flu-sie.” (Princeton) Town Topics 13 October 1957.

On Again, Off Again.” (Princeton) Town Topics 27 October 1957.

We Nominate…(Princeton) Town Topics 27 October 1957.


For further reading on epidemics at Princeton:

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

Linke, Dan. “Princeton and the 1918 Flu Epidemic.” 22 December 2008.

Princeton University Emergency Guidelines for the Campus Community for Pandemic Influenza.

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