July 1, 2020

LORENZEN | The Cornellians Who Emerged From the Last Pandemic

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“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.







  • 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.


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 [email protected]. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this summer.