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The Year Princeton University Delayed the Start of Classes until October 10


Senior Council Record Book, 1917, Student Council Records, Manuscript Collection AC253, Box 2.

The motion was passed that the following resolutions of the Council be printed in the Princetonian issue of October 16th:

(1) That all undergraduates shall not enter any moving picture theatre in Princeton.

(2) That all undergraduates shall stay within the University limits, avoiding Witherspoon street and other congested districts unless there is an urgent need to the contrary.

(3) That all undergraduates eat only at the Clubs or the University Dining Halls.

(4) That all undergraduates refrain from leaving town and thereby exposing themselves and the rest of the student body to unnecessary danger.

On October 14, 1916, Princeton University president John Grier Hibben asked the Senior Council to adopt the resolution quoted above. He had already taken the unprecedented step of delaying the start of classes from the usual mid-September until October 10. The faculty had decided, in light of the shortened academic year, to reduce the length of the usual breaks students would otherwise have received.

1917 Senior Council. Photo from 1918 Bric-a-Brac.

The reason for these radical steps and unusual restraints upon the student population was the most serious epidemic of “infantile paralysis” (polio) anyone had ever seen, with unprecedented scope and severity. It began in New York City in May. By August the spread had reached New Jersey, as well as Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York, and was still radiating further into other parts of North America. An estimated 23,000 cases of polio hit the Mid-Atlantic and New England states before it ended, with a fatality rate of roughly 25%, the highest ever recorded. Polio was typically a summer illness; cooler weather was predicted to bring an end to its spread, as the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained to its readers. As such, Hibben hoped that a delayed start date would cushion Princeton against the epidemic.

Polio is a highly contagious viral disease that can cause inflammation of the spinal cord and, in some cases, of the brain stem and/or motor cortex. It enters the body through the mouth (hence the warning to only eat on campus) and moves from the gastrointestinal tract to the tonsils and lymph nodes, from which it moves to the bloodstream, enabling it to infect the entire body. When it infects nerve fiber pathways, it destroys the cells, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis, and sometimes death.

For the most part, the steps Hibben took may well have prevented Princeton from experiencing a more serious impact than the University ultimately did, yet they did not fully divert its effect. 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 Senior Council’s resolution, essentially asking that the students voluntarily quarantine themselves within the campus, was passed on the same day as Brünnow’s diagnosis. The PAW also attributed a drop in freshman enrollment, which was down 14% from the previous year, to widespread concerns about the polio epidemic.

These measures were the best Princeton could manage until the announcement of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in 1955. Although the disease has been eradicated in the Americas through widespread vaccination efforts, it is still infecting many people in parts of Africa and the Middle East. To date, there is no cure.

Princeton sources:

Hibben, John Grier. “Report of the President for the Year Ending December 31, 1916,” in Princeton University Annual Reports. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1917.

Infantile Paralysis Gaining in Trenton.” The Daily Princetonian October 13, 1916.

McClenahan, Howard. “Report of the Dean of the College to the Committee on Morals and Physical Education: October 26, 1916.” In Board of Trustees Records, Vol. 14.

Member of 1920 Victim of Infantile Paralysis.” The Daily Princetonian October 16, 1916.

Minutes, 1917. Senior Council Records, Box 2.

Princeton Alumni Weekly 17, nos. 1-3 (October 4-18, 1916).

External sources:

“Princeton to Open Late: Because of Epidemic University Will Be Closed Till Oct. 10.” New York Times August 19, 1916: 10.

Rogers, Naomi. Dirt and Disease: Polio Before FDR. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Wyatt, H.V. “The 1916 New York City Epidemic of Poliomyelitis: Where Did the Virus Come From?The Open Vaccine Journal 4 (2011): 13-17.

Researchers interested in more about the history of polio in the United States may also wish to consult the Lyman B. Kirkpatrick Papers and the H. Alexander Smith Papers.

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