“Bravely faces them still”

Friday, July 31, 2020
Surgeon General’s guidelines in the Mercersburg News

From an October 12, 1918, issue of the Mercersburg News:

The Spanish Flu is near our school
Therefore we must obey the rule
The football stops upon the fields,
The students starve between the meals.

True, to the town we’ll go no more.
But stay ourselves upon the floor
Plough’s and Steiger’s will go broke
From lack of moneyed student folk

Our dear old talk-room will be quiet
From the daily boyish riot
Nor must the boys pass up the hours
Standing ’neath the scalding showers

We’ll keep ourselves upon the hill
And every hour take one small pill
And all these rules we’ll keep in sway
To keep the Spanish ‘Flu’ away

When the author of this poem wrote it, under the pseudonym “Simon,” he may have accurately described the feeling of students at Mercersburg Academy in 1918. World War I had just entered its fifth year of combat, and the death toll had risen above 40 million. The world for a teenager had a different perspective than today’s Academy students navigate. Little did Simon know that by the time the Spanish flu had run its course, the death total from that pandemic would surpass the WWI total. 

When the flu was at its peak, the school’s infirmary was overwhelmed to the point that Nolde Gymnasium had to be opened as a temporary space for housing sick students. Yet, amazingly, the Academy stayed open during the pandemic. The school felt it was enough of a threat that it posted in the Mercersburg News a copy of the surgeon general’s guidelines (image pictured at right) on how to cope during the outbreak.

Despite the warnings from the Surgeon General and the cancelation of the football season, there is evidence that the epidemic wasn’t taken with the utmost caution by the school as a whole. (Incidentally, Mercersburg played one game and ended the football season undefeated by blanking Baltimore Poly Tech 35-0.)

Mercersburg News, October 1918

The clip to the left is from an anonymous article in the Mercersburg News, October 1918. The scope of the pandemic had not been fully realized, as this was the beginning of the outbreak throughout the United States. The Spanish flu hit the school hard—while no casualties were recorded among the student body, the Mercersburg alumni body did suffer at least 70 deaths due to the pandemic.

Unusually, this was the second widespread illness to confront the campus in the calendar year of 1918. Earlier in the year, a scarlet fever outbreak occurred in the spring, and the school closed leading up to spring break.

Scarlet fever was a known fear across the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mortality rates some years rose to 25 percent from this disease, and maybe that was the reason the school was so quick to close when outbreaks arose.

The first time the school closed due to scarlet fever was in January 1909. When the news of the first few cases reached the student body, a panic quickly spread: “Several of the fellows lost their heads, became frightened, and packed suitcases in preparatory to a hasty departure.” Those students were unable to secure a buggy ride to the Greencastle train station, so they set off on foot. Headmaster Dr. William Mann Irvine caught wind of the unapproved trip and contacted the Greencastle police, who were waiting to give the boys a free ride back to the Academy. However, Dr. Irvine ultimately took the concerns to heart, and the school recessed for three weeks until the scare had passed.

In the 1930s, polio was a constant threat in the United States. Outbreaks occurred every summer in different parts of the nation after the epidemic began in 1916 and continued until the vaccine was licensed in 1962. It was one of these outbreaks that touched the Academy in 1931. Four students were stricken ill by polio in the fall of 1931; two of those students passed away.

As one would expect, the campus was in a fright. Headmaster Dr. Boyd Edwards brought in a representative from the Pennsylvania Department of Health to assist the medical crew. Announcements were made and articles were written in an attempt to calm the fear. Ultimately, students were allowed to return home for a two-week stretch if they desired, but the school continued in session.

Reports are that close to 200 students took Dr. Edwards up on his offer and returned to their homes for two weeks. Those who stayed behind used precautions and carefully went about their business. Dr. Edwards felt a desire to honor those who stayed behind, so when the full student body returned, he held an assembly. He made a speech that lauded those young men for their bravery, and then each student who stayed on campus was awarded a lapel pin with the phrase “Bravely faces them still” (a line from the first stanza of the Mercersburg Academy Alma Mater) engraved on it.

The reasons that a student would stay on campus are many, and some of the students who remained had very little choice. The Academy brought in a doctor from the U.S. Public Health Service to live in the infirmary as a voluntary observer. In a letter sent home to parents, Dr. Edwards declared that the on-campus experts assured him that students would be safer on campus than at home. In fact, he believed that 95 percent of the students were immune to polio at that stage.

For each of these outbreaks, the school operated under the circumstances of the time. Considerations were made while taking into account the science, education, and information of the era in which school leaders found themselves. As one views the decisions of the past, it is hard not to insert modern knowledge and belief into the analysis. The knowledge and understanding of how disease works and best practices to avoid getting sick are at a peak in modern human history. Even so, despite our best efforts, what began as a two-week vacation this spring grew to encompass the whole spring term and conclude with a virtual graduation ceremony.

Just as a student wrote a poem in 1918 about his thoughts on the epidemic, rising Mercersburg senior Saskia Mentor ’21 offers this poem on how she views life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Red thief

Do not don gloves or a mask
Whoever heard of a thief
Whose victims wear
Gloves and masks?
Lurk in the shadows,
Threatening to break and enter
At any given moment,
But no one knows what’s stolen
Until they go looking for it
And find
That everything is wrong
Are unashamed
Of yourself,
Wrapping your fingers around
Their throats,
Their chests,
Their bodies,
Until red-rimmed eyes
Glaze with distant presence
And die.

—Saskia Mentor ’21