May 20, 2020

Princeton’s Health Care History Explored in Open Archive Program

AN EARLIER PANDEMIC: An emergency hospital was created in the Green home on Stockton Street, near where Trinity Church is located today, during the 1918 flu pandemic. This photo is among the historic documents to be shared in the Open Archive program being presented virtually by the Historical Society of Princeton on May 27. (Courtesy of Historical Society of Princeton)

By Anne Levin

During the influenza pandemic a century ago, Princeton suffered its share of losses. By the time the two-year crisis subsided in 1920, some 300 cases had been reported, and about 20 residents had died, according to the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP).

The town had no medical facility at that time. Princeton Hospital was established largely because of the pandemic, a fact that HSP curator Stephanie Schwartz will explore in the Open Archive program being presented digitally on Wednesday, May 27 at 6:30 p.m. The event, which explores the history of health care in Princeton, is being broadcast live on Princeton Public Library’s Crowdcast page.

“This Open Archive program will have a more structured format than previous ones, because it is being broadcast so we can’t feature quite as many documents as usual,” said Schwartz. “But we’ll be narrowing it down, focusing on what we have in our collection from the first few decades of the 20th century, especially in relation to the creation of the hospital, which was a result of the pandemic.”

Papers related to the original Neighborhood Nurse Committee, newspaper articles, hospital brochures, fundraising items, and annual reports are among the items to be discussed in the program, which will allow the opportunity to ask questions. Items unrelated to the flu epidemic include early records from the town’s first health officer in the 1920s, and signs that were put up outside houses indicating scarlet fever or chicken pox cases within.

The 1918-1920 pandemic was the deadliest in then-recorded history, striking in three waves over 26 months and killing some 675,000 Americans. While the town of Princeton suffered losses, Princeton University did not. According to a December 17, 2008 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly by Mark F. Bernstein ’83, the University had no fatalities possibly because of a strategy known as protective sequestration, designed to protect healthy people from contracting an infectious disease that exists elsewhere.

“In 2005, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency commissioned the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine to undertake a study of Princeton and a handful of other places that largely escaped the ravages of the 1918 flu pandemic, to see whether ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ such as isolation and protective sequestration are effective,” the story reads. “The findings have been reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. The broad conclusion is that aggressive sequestration seems to be effective in saving lives. But, epidemiologists warn, it’s impossible to discount the possibility that in 1918, Princeton simply got lucky.”

Because of World War I, the campus was already “almost unrecognizable as an institution of higher education, as almost all of the old college routines had changed,” the story continues. The eating clubs had been closed, the Daily Princetonian had suspended publication, and the football team played only an informal schedule.

The flu arrived in September 1918, when a young man enrolled in the Navy paymaster’s school on campus reported sick with an upper respiratory infection. He was diagnosed with flu and placed in isolation, but the disease spread. “By mid-October, beds were lined up in the corridors of McCosh Infirmary,” Bernstein wrote, “and President John Grier Hibben 1882 made the field house available to isolate some 200 of the most serious cases.”

Princeton’s lack of fatalities was unique in comparison to other schools. “Fifty-nine University of Michigan students, in contrast, died of the flu that fall,” the story reads. “At Dartmouth, one faculty member, five students, and 10 soldiers stationed on campus died. Two died at Harvard, although it had instituted a partial quarantine.”

Students and soldiers were not allowed to leave campus, but some of their parents found ways to see them. “Many of the parents came to watch a freshman parade in which John Marshall Harlan ’20 — who would go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court but was then the student commander of Goodrich’s naval unit — led a group around campus singing Princeton fight songs. In line behind him was Adlai Stevenson ’22, who wrote later that afternoon to his mother back home in Bloomington, Ill., ‘I feel sure that the ‘flu’ is not half as bad here as there.’ ”

The first cases off campus, in the town of Princeton, that required hospitalization were sent to Trenton. “An emergency hospital was created in the Green home on Stockton Street, near where Trinity Church is today,” said Schwartz. “The house was fitted out with 20 beds. During the epidemic, over 100 persons were hospitalized at some time or other in this Board of Health emergency hospital. Of those who were hospitalized, only six died.”

The Open Archive focused on the history of health care in Princeton was already on the HSP roster when the current COVID-19 pandemic hit. Usually held on the second floor of Princeton Public Library, where those in attendance can examine the historic items and documents up close, this digital presentation will be different.

“We can’t have as much, and our focus won’t be as broad as we originally planned,” said Schwartz. “But we have narrowed down our focus, and there is still a lot to see and a lot to learn about.”

To register for the program, visit