Campus Pandemics, Then and Now

I’ve been teaching a music journalism class here at Cornell this semester. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings over the past eleven weeks I’ve joined eight students for an hour-and-a-quarter in a windowless rehearsal room in the basement of the music building. No other classes meet in the building during our sessions or for several hours before or after. The chairs, assigned to individuals for the semester, are placed six feet apart and everyone wears a mask. Hand sanitizer and wipes flank the doorway. Another three students Zoom in to the proceedings: two from their apartments off-campus in Ithaca, and one from Singapore, which is thirteen hours ahead of New York time.

After today the university goes into ten days of “semi-finals” during which no classes meet, but many courses (mostly in the sciences) conduct exams. After this period the students head back home before Thanksgiving and stay away from Cornell until February, thus minimizing travel to and from campus and therefore inhibiting the spread of the virus. The remaining two-and-half weeks of this semester’s classes will be conducted on Zoom: for the first time all term we’ll be able to see each other’s faces.

We’ve been posting some of our work on our blog called Ezra’s Ear with longer pieces (profiles, obituaries, book reviews) still to be filed after the semi-finals caesura. The blog’s banner image is a panoramic photo that I took by climbing up the imposing bronze statue of the university’s founder, Ezra Cornell. Wearing frock coat, sporting an Abe Lincoln beard, wielding a walking stick (a reference to Hercules’ club?) and hat in one hand, and resting the other on a conveniently placed bronze stump, Ezra gazes possessively out over his Arts Quad. Though my clinging pose—one arm straining around the founder’s neck and shoulders the other operating an iPhone—was the opposite of socially-distanced, at least some health-conscious wag had kitted out the Great Man in a surgical mask.

The pandemic has been a theme in many of the student contributions to the blog: the necessary distractions and healing powers of music; the paucity of “live” opportunities to make music and listen to it; the efforts of musicians of all stripes—from global celebrities to those still enjoying the rare luxury of anonymity—to reach others through technologies ancient and modern, from the chimes in the campus’s clocktower to the cash-hungry cadres of the TikTok revolution.

Aside from reading classics of music journalism (from Hector Berlioz to Greil Marcus) and hot-off-the-presses pieces in the Guardian, New York Times, New Yorker, and CounterPunch, we’ve intermittently looked back at Cornell’s journalistic past, delving into the archive of the campus newspaper, the Daily Sun, to get a sense of how the university coped with the Spanish Flu. Such then-and-now comparisons are always fascinating, not least for the exotic look of a vintage broadsheet even when leafed through in digital form: the front-page cartoon crowning the seven-column layout; the creativity and craft of the advertisements that open windows onto the vibrancy of urban life with its cafeterias, smoke shops, haberdasheries, and many theaters (both live and movies). At every turn one encounters juxtapositions and synchronicities, international wire stories jostling with campus announcements, as in the issue of April 16, 1919—Eastertide—and the call for Cheerleader try-outs placed just below the headline about peace terms being presented to the Germans at Versailles. The ominous subhead runs: “Paris Believes the Central Powers Will to Balk at Hard Conditions.” To the left of the cartoon making light of the looming introduction of Prohibition, we read of a Bolshevik defeat, corruption in state government Albany, and a strike on the docks of New York. Just below the illustration of a drunken Noah watching his bottles of booze toddle towards the Ark, comes an announcement of University Organist James T. Quarles’s pre-Easter potpourri program that ranges from Chopin’s Marche funèbre to the Good Friday Spell from Wagner’s Parsifal one which the recitalist is joined by his wife Gertrude, a contralto. Gone are the days when an organ concert, even in Easter Week, makes it onto the front page of any newspaper.

On page three another cartoon calls for funds to bring the troops back from Europe by depicting the Doughboys forced to swim home. Almost comically moored alongside the cartoon is a water-related column about the changes to the order of the rowers in the Cornell varsity eight. On page five we read that the number of “English” deaths has surpassed births, nearly 100,000 having fallen victim to the flu. Just below this report comes news that the Cornell Mandolin Club has given up plans to re-form because its long-time director is still France.

These and other collisions brought home to my students that the Spanish Flu was spread and worsened by war. Rather than facing quarantine in fine style in the university hotel as has been the case in the present crisis, they might, had they come to Cornell a century ago, been sent off to the trenches instead.

From University Historian Morris Bishop’s classic History of Cornell published in 1962 we learned that in October 1918 the university began quartering soldiers on campus. With them came the flu. There were 900 cases at Cornell, some 1,300 in Ithaca. Thirty-seven students died, and about the same number in the town. In 2020 by contrast, the first Covid death in Tompkins County, home to Cornell, was reported a month ago. In the autumn of 1918 many doctors were overseas, so local resident and students were called on to help the stricken.

In World War I, Cornell’s fraternities were converted to dormitories for soldiers, with as many as seventy-five cots in each house. There were no campus clubs, no publications, no athletics. Tompkins County had voted to go dry in already October of 1918, more than a year before the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. The cessation of student activities and the popularity of the movies, as Bishop wryly noted, “operated to keep the students away from beer’s redolence.”

During Covid there has been more than a little beer pong played. Just this morning the regional public radio station reported that there is a cluster of new cases at Cornell caused by party-hopping students. Without minimizing the impact on the spirits and prospects of my students, these forays into hundred-year-old editions of the Daily Sun have encouraged some of them to revise their previous claims made in some of their pieces that Covid is the worst pandemic in history.

A centennial comparison of elections has also been illuminating. The edition of the Daily Sun from November 3rd, 2020, the day after the Presidential Election one hundred years ago, proclaimed a landslide for Harding, the Republican winning by a two-to-one in this county, and heralding, as the paper put it, a “return to normalcy”—a phrase that has been revived in Covid Time. A speck of blue in a sea of Upstate red, Tompkins County voted by much more than two-to-one for Biden this time around. The cartoon at the bottom of the first page goes after the frequent target of Bolshevism by depicting “Lenine” frantically attempting to crank the jalopy of Russia to life. Thus American Democracy congratulated itself on the morning after the Harding victory.

On page six of the paper the proprietor of Ithaca’s “Toggery” urged commitment to commerce and cooperation and a turn away from divisive politics.

Now spared the scourge of pandemic and war, Musical Clubs were back in full action in 1920, their activities documented throughout the day-after-the-election Daily Sun. Granted permission to travel with the football team for a big game against Dartmouth in New York City, these fun-loving musicians were set to participate in a Dartmouth-Cornell concert at the Hotel Pennsylvania that would be stocked with “Special Stunts.” Joining in at last was the Mandolin Club, which offered “Moods” by Zavaloni, a fine counter to the Dartmouth strummers’ “Turkish Towel Rag.”

The Roaring Twenties—even if officially “dry”—were off and running.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at