This column should be about Princeton Reunions. I should be alerting readers to the incoming throngs of black-and-orange-clad alumni who will crowd into favorite old Nassau Street haunts and occupy those precious downtown parking spots. I should be advising readers of interesting open events featuring prominent alumni who have returned to celebrate with their classes.
Instead, the campus is deserted, save for some colorful signs reminding the few who remain to keep “one tiger” — roughly six feet — apart, and the white tents that are synonymous with free-flowing beer and late-night concerts are nowhere to be seen. The Reunions celebrations, including the annual P-rade, have gone virtual, and the fireworks will have to wait until next year.
No, these days instead of digging in my closet for my garish P-rade costume, I’m thankful that this parade isn’t carrying on as a golden opportunity for a stealthy virus to spread quickly through a crowd.
And instead of thinking about the old college friends I might see, I’m thinking about my great-great-grandfather. This might seem odd, but he has been in the news quite a bit recently when it comes to parades — despite the fact that he has been dead since 1943.
His name was Wilmer Krusen, and if that sounds familiar it’s because it has come up just about every time a city has considered going ahead with a planned parade — notably around St. Patrick’s Day — in the midst of the current public health crisis.
In 1918 — the last time the world faced a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 — Great-Great-Grandpa Krusen was the director of public health for the City of Philadelphia. In September of that year, sailors returning from Europe at the end of World War I arrived in Philadelphia’s naval yard carrying the flu strain that would come to be known as the Spanish Flu.
The government, meanwhile, was funding its war efforts through the sales of “liberty bonds.” Philadelphia was charged with raising $259 million for the effort, and like cities across the country, saw a grand parade as a way to bolster its fundraising efforts. The parade was scheduled for September 28, 1918.
To make a long story short, Krusen allowed the parade to go on despite growing evidence of a flu outbreak in the city. Some 200,000 people lined the two-mile parade route through the city. History — and many current-day articles exhorting public officials not to make the same mistake — have blamed Krusen for the carnage that followed. Within three days of the parade, all of Philadelphia’s hospital beds were filled, and within two weeks the death toll stood at 4,500.
Some scholars have made the argument that Krusen was essentially powerless to cancel the parade given the political realities at the time. But for most he is the poster boy for what not to do during a pandemic.
For a more positive example of how to respond to the threat of a highly contagious disease, one need look no further than the institution that inspired this column in the first place: Princeton University.
The school, through an aggressive policy of “protective sequestration,” in which the well were kept strictly isolated from the sick, did not lose a single student to influenza in the fall of 1918.
The town of Princeton was not quite as lucky, but it did escape an overwhelming death toll in part due to quick closures of schools, restaurants, and the like. But Princeton also did what Philadelphia failed to do: it canceled its Liberty Loans parade.
The October 11, 1918, issue of the Princeton Packet declared: “THERE WILL BE NO LIBERTY PARADE TODAY, by order of the Board of Health.” The article noted that with one week remaining, Princeton had raised $322,100 of its $696,670 quota. The story quotes a letter from the chairman of the New Jersey Advisory Committee addressed to “the People of Princeton” that shows the type of pressure officials were under to sell the liberty bonds:
“The fact that we are winning the war on the western front should be no excuse for not subscribing to the Fourth Loan at once especially in view of the fact that the budget announced by the Treasury MUST be raised. During this drive we are handicapped by the fear of Influenza. Therefore it is the duty of every citizen to make his subscription now. Do not wait to be urged and solicited. BUY NOW!”
While plans for a parade were dismantled, at the same time plans for a hospital materialized overnight. In 1918 Princeton did not have its own hospital, and hospitals in Trenton had reached capacity and were no longer accepting patients from Princeton. And so, in that same issue of the Princeton Packet, it was reported:
“Princeton has been noted for quick results in answering charitable appeals, but all records for quickness and dispatch were broken Wednesday evening when a local emergency hospital was established here within a few hours. It was an accomplishment of which the whole town is proud.”
The “Board of Health Emergency Hospital,” as it was known, was set up with 20 beds in a Stockton Street home that had at one point been Miss Fine’s School. “Now that a Princeton hospital is a reality, and something that Princeton has always needed, it is up to the people to assist in this great work in every possible way,” the Packet wrote.
The people were up to the task, and the following year noted Princeton philanthropist Moses Taylor Pyne donated the site on Witherspoon Street known as the Murphy-Pierson Farm. “For a long time the citizens of Princeton have felt the need of a hospital,” the Daily Princetonian reported on January 29, 1919, “especially since the infant mortality in the town is the highest in the state and since the facilities of the present medical system were pitifully inadequate at the time of the influenza epidemic.”
The story of Princeton Hospital’s creation, as well as other anecdotes from the history of healthcare and pandemics in Princeton, will be part of a virtual installation of the Open Archive series hosted jointly by the Princeton Public Library and the Historical Society of Princeton on Wednesday, May 27, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. via Crowdcast. Historical Society curator Stephanie Schwartz will guide viewers through images from the archives that illustrate the history of nursing, hospitals, and pandemics in the town.
This history major — missing her historian friends, her doctor friends, and all the traditional festivities at the reunions weekend that isn’t — hopes that everyone can learn from it.
For more information on Open Archive, visit www.princetonhistory.org.
A virtual edition of Princeton University’s annual P-rade featuring undergraduate and graduate alumni and the Class of 2020 will be streamed live on Saturday, May 30, at 2 p.m. Visit reunions.princeton.edu.