“Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.” — Aldous Huxley
As you may have noticed, things are not going well. Our country continues to sink deeper into the ravages of a brutal pandemic made demonstrably worse by ineffectual, willfully ignorant action on the part of our political leaders. The economy is sputtering like a 1980 Ford Pinto attempting to drive up an Ithacan hill. Saharan Dust is coming for all of us, apparently (whoever thought up that story arc for this season of 2020 really jumped the shark). Murder hornets are still a thing, and, y’know, the ‘Murder’ part of their name seems less than ideal. In sum, life is not all that great at the moment. But, rather than allowing ourselves to grow disheartened by the state of current events, perhaps we can recapture a bit of optimism by looking to the last time things went to hell in a similar handbasket. Perhaps by taking a look at the lives of students at Cornell during the last pandemic, we can learn how they channeled such profoundly difficult circumstances in their college years into rich, fulfilling lives which helped make the world a slightly less hellish place. In considering the lives of those who passed through Cornell’s halls during the influenza pandemic which endured from 1918 to 1920, we can gain faith in the positive lives we can lead in a world mired, understandably, in negativity.
- E.B. White ’21 — The legendary writer of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web and reviser of William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style graduated from Cornell in 1921 after an undergraduate career which overlapped with the duration of the influenza pandemic.
- Mary Donlon Alger, LL.B. ’20 — This name may ring a bell, particularly for freshmen. Graduating from Cornell Law in 1920, Donlon “was the first woman to be editor in chief of a law review in the United States, decades ahead of any other claimant to that honor” and “the first woman to become a partner at a Wall Street Law Firm”. She would go on to become a Judge of the United States Customs Court and famously stated “that every successful woman should provide “a strong pair of shoulders” on which other women could climb”.
- Isidor Isaac Rabi ’19 — After graduating from Cornell, Rabi would go on to become one of the most legendary physicists of all time, winning a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 “for his resonance method for recording the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei.”
- Laura Z. Hobson ’21 — After completing her undergraduate degree, Hobson would become a landmark writer who broke barriers in her classic novel Gentleman’s Agreement about American anti-Semitism.
- Albert Cassell ’19 — The prominent African American architect and educator embarked upon a storied career after graduating from Cornell in 1919, designing buildings for the Tuskegee Institute and Howard University
- Laura Riding ’21 — After finishing her undergraduate years, Riding became a generational writer renowned for her poems which critics argued “At their best, they have some of the concentration of language so memorable in Emily Dickinson, while the syntactic difficulty and elaborate conceits [T.S.] Elliot did so much to revive.”
- Elbert Tuttle ’18 — One of the judges of the “Fifth Circuit Four”, Tuttle graduated from Cornell in 1918 just as the influenza pandemic began. His work on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit set the stage for massive advancements in the rights of black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.
- Alexander Kevitz ’23 — Kevitz became a chess master “who played on the United States chess team against the Soviet Union in 1946 and 1955”.
There are countless more alumni whose student years likewise overlapped with a pandemic who are worth researching, considering and learning from. Yet, even just this small selection demonstrates the capacity of our predecessors at this school to emerge from a pandemic to forge lives which made the world around them a better place. There is no sugarcoating it: Life is lousy at the moment. But great leaders are forged during dark times. They use their experience in these eras to learn to lead with empathy and courage.
You can too.
Students passed through this school before you who did the same, and you have the capacity to do it too. Cornell is riddled with problems. The world is riddled with even more. You can help solve them in your own unique way. You have the capacity to effect change. It’s not trite to say that students are the future nor that a single person can change the world — it’s just history. Look at that list — that’s what they all did. So can you. As the headlines grow more and more dour, as the weight of this terrible year bears down on your shoulders, as you find yourself ridden with anxiety and self doubt — remember, you are not alone. These Cornellians went through it too. And like them, you will emerge from it even better equipped to change the world.
Andrew Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this summer.