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The Past is Prologue: We've Been Here Before

The Past is Prologue: We've Been Here Before
Mallory Munro

Spring sports cancelled. No Groton games. No more in-person spring classes. No VI Form Dance. No Prize Day on campus.

Sound familiar?

Well, that was St. Mark's some 84 years ago, in the spring of 1936. You see, we've been here before.

In fact, at least half-dozen times in its history, St. Mark's has been forced to deal with an epidemic or pandemic affecting the life of the institution. Only two—in 1936 and 2020—have impacted the School so profoundly, but each of them brought their own challenges to the St. Mark's family.

[SM campus in 1877]

The first occurred in 1877. An epidemic of scarlet fever, a bacterial contagion, and on February 6, just a month after returning from Christmas break, the School was shut down. The headmaster, Dr. James Ivers Trecothick Coolidge [pictured at right], in his fourth year at the helm, remained on campus with a handful of faculty. But he sent all students home, and likewise his own family was transported from Southborough to Boston. After three weeks, St. Mark's reopened, so there was another month of classes before the traditional week-long Easter break. A second scarlet fever outbreak happened in late March of 1891. As in 2020, students were already home for vacation (Easter fell on March 29 that year), so headmaster William E. Peck simply extended the break for an additional couple of weeks. School was, however, back in session by mid-April.

Twenty years later, the disease was infantile paralysis, commonly known as polio, and the viral infection hit Southborough in the autumn of 1911. William Greenough Thayer [pictured at left], entering his 13th year as St. Mark's headmaster, offered the School's infirmary (then on the third floor, near where Gaccon House is today) as a quarantine space for local residents. It was ultimately a mild outbreak, but the town voted its thanks to Dr. Thayer for his help and support.

The 1918 worldwide influenza pandemic saw the School face the greatest challenge of its first half-century-plus. January of that year saw the United States' first major outbreak of the virus in both New York and Kansas, probably brought back from Europe by American soldiers wounded or incapacitated during the First World War (this strain of the flu had first appeared on that war-torn continent during the previous year). By early summer, the flu had struck Southborough. Sprawling across a large field next to Fayville Village Hall, less than two miles from St. Mark's along the Worcester Turnpike, was a large tent hospital. Over 100 cots were filled with those from Southborough who had been struck down by the epidemic. Many would live, many others would die—most of the latter from resulting pneumonia. The town physician, Dr. Lowell Bacon, warned Dr. Thayer to keep his St. Markers as isolated as possible during the summer months. Advisory letters were sent out to parents, and the strict regimen of the remote summer farming camp—a service program where young St. Markers volunteered to assist local farmers who had lost their farm hands to the wartime draft—helped keep its rotating population of 30-plus boys out of harm's way.

That good fortune did not last with the arrival of more than 150 boys ages twelve to eighteen for the opening of school. On September 21, just three days after settling in, three St. Markers came down with influenza. Two V Formers, Daniel Holder and Walden Pell, and one II Former, Henry Somers Sterling, were quarantined in the infirmary on Dr. Bacon's orders (Lowell Bacon-- pictured at right-- was also the physician on-call for St. Mark's during the academic year). Four days later, the total number of flu cases in the St. Mark's infirmary rose to fourteen, including two Monitors and representing every Form. Dr. Bacon kept meticulous daily records, as he had since arriving in Southborough in the early part of the century.

By September 28, a full 30 boys were placed in isolation. Interestingly, more than half of those with the flu received a vaccination against the disease. It is clear from these statistics that attempts to limit the epidemic were rarely successful. In addition to these 30, a dozen St. Markers who first presented flu symptoms—including the original three—were permitted to return to their dormitories for rest. The number housed in the infirmary, in beds and on cots, remained between 20 and 30 for the remainder of the month and into October. For about 10 days, St. Mark's was closed due to the influenza outbreak, and the only inhabitants of the school building were those in the infirmary. Responsibility for the medical supervision of the quarantine fell to Ruth B. Kilbourne, the school nurse, and she met the challenge efficiently and effectively.

That autumn, there were only eight VI Formers enrolled at St. Mark's. With so few seniors and the challenges posed by the flu epidemic, there was no football season that year. As football was the only fall varsity sport at the School in those days, there were no games with outside opponents at all in 1918, a first for St. Mark's since the advent of interscholastic competition in the early 1870s.

After the School reopened in November, the disease seemed to be on the wane. "The publication of the October number of the Vindex has been unavoidably delayed, owing to the influenza epidemic, which necessitated the temporary closing of the School," announced the editors. There was soon a rash of new cases, spiking just before the Thanksgiving recess. More than half of the boys came down with the flu during that time. Although no one on campus died, several alumni succumbed to the epidemic. But it appeared as though the danger had passed. A final wave of influenza hit Boston in mid-January, forcing a postponement of the annual VI Form dance extravaganza (in those days a winter tradition at St. Mark's). However, the seniors would not be daunted, and on January 30 "about 12 girls were invited...and a small dance was held in the Common Room," hosted by Dr. and Mrs. Thayer.

St. Mark's would face an even greater challenge in 1936. That crisis actually began late in September 1935, when Southborough experienced another polio outbreak. As the disease had initially impacted only local residents, St. Mark's opened as usual, but headmaster Francis Parkman (St. Mark's Class of 1915) confined his students to campus, allowing no downtown excursions. Within two weeks, the threat seemed to diminish, and both the School and the town returned to their normal routines. At St. Mark's, the fall and winter terms and their respective sports seasons were successfully completed. After Easter break, the spring term got underway, with classes proceeding busily and exciting athletic moments in baseball, tennis, and crew. Things were certainly looking up, with Prize Day only a month away. [pictured at top of story: St. Mark's campus in 1936]

Then it all came to a sudden halt. The rest of the season was cancelled. There would be no baseball game with Groton in 1936. Instead, Dr. Parkman [pictured at left] and the St. Mark's community would face a more than month-long challenge that would test the School like nothing had ever before. Despite the concerns of the previous autumn, the St. Mark's community was taken by surprise—by an epidemic—and for Francis Parkman it would be perhaps the defining moment of his tenure as headmaster.

Shortly after chapel on Sunday, May 16, seven boys reported to the third-floor infirmary. They were feverish and suffering from headaches and painful stiffness. Dr. Lee Kendall, fairly new to the role of Southborough town physician, was called in, and after examining his young patients he diagnosed infantile paralysis. Polio had come once again to St. Mark's, this time in a more virulent strain. The sick students were immediately quarantined, and Kendall reported to the headmaster. Francis Parkman acted quickly, notifying local health authorities and the families of every boarder. More students came forward over the next few hours, complaining of sore throats, vomiting, and muscle pain. On Monday, the headmaster met with his faculty to update them on the situation. By Tuesday, the infirmary area and the adjacent dormitory were completely quarantined, with school nurses Elizabeth Seuss and Marion Hood in charge of caring for the infected boys under Dr. Kendall's supervision. On Wednesday, May 19, the announcement of an epidemic on campus was official, and all games were cancelled. Dr. Parkman sent word that all parents who wished to pick up their sons could do so, with the understanding that the boys would be able to take their final examinations at home. Through all this, he informed the faculty, the school routine—including classes—would continue as best it could. "A frantic exodus commenced," the Lion recorded, "lasting a week."

Over that time, wrote Ned Hall '37, "the student body went about its business, hearing rumors, watching friends sicken or be sent for by anxious parents, and keeping their heads." Hall was one of those who stayed. His friend, Charlie Cook '36, was one of those who fell ill. Others infected included III Formers Benjamin Bradlee and Frederick Hubbell. They were both sent to Boston: Bradlee to his home and Hubbell, in much more serious condition, to Massachusetts General Hospital. Years later, the son of the former Harvard football great could still recall the drive east from Southborough, alongside Hubbell, who was ablaze with fever and in great pain. Bradlee was lifted from the car and helped into his Beacon Street home. In the doorway, he turned to wave goodbye as Hubbell was driven off in the direction of Mass General. It was the last time Bradlee would ever see his friend and classmate.

Back at St. Mark's, according to the Vindex, "a bare two-score souls remained, braving the plague." Ten out of the 40 were VI Formers, the largest single representation from any class. The headmaster, noted Ned Hall, "rose brilliantly to the occasion." Francis Parkman seemed to be everywhere: visiting the sick, encouraging the healthy boys—now isolated from the outside world—in their studies, and organizing activities for all. He wrote personal letters to the more than 150 boys now living away from campus, some ill but many simply frightened of becoming sick. Each day, Dr. Parkman would meet with local public health officials to make certain that he and the School were responding appropriately and effectively to the crisis. He contacted Dr. W. Lloyd Aycock, a member of the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission and assistant professor of preventive medicine and hygiene at Harvard Medical School, requesting an investigation into the possible causes of the epidemic, along with a studied evaluation of any future risks and the steps necessary to control or eliminate those risks.

For the first time, St. Markers felt truly close to their headmaster. Always a little distant and aloof, Dr. Parkman managed to reach across this gulf during the month-long polio scare, most notably with the support and assistance of his wife. Eleanor Parkman was "a comforting person, whose interest in boys, faculty, faculty families, and employees was both obvious and sincere." Her warmth, humor, and gentle compassion balanced her husband's tendency to gruffness, but from mid-May through June of 1936, he took his cue from her. Every afternoon there were pickup softball games on Belmont Field, with both students and faculty mixing on teams. The headmaster would take up his old position at first base and livened each contest with a constant string of chatter, surprising both boys and masters who were much more used to his contemplative silences. Decades later, when remembering the Parkman years, former students would recall how he "rose brilliantly to the occasion" during that difficult time, and in the echo of those remembrances could always be heard the word "inspiration."

On May 23, there was a baseball game: the faculty versus the members of the varsity and junior varsity teams still on campus, and Dr. Parkman notched a pair of doubles while playing first base. The next day was Sunday, and Mrs. Parkman invited everyone to tea in the parlor after Chapel. The following Wednesday, she served scrambled eggs to about 16 boys—the few remaining members of the top two Forms. By then, a total of 18 St. Markers had been diagnosed with "major poliomyelitis," while another dozen or more were suspected of having contracted "minor poliomyelitis" or "abortive polio." On the evening of Friday, May 29, Dr. Parkman took a call from the Phillips House patient care home at Massachusetts General Hospital. Fred Hubbell '39 had died earlier that day. He was just 14.

Francis Parkman was particularly devastated by the news. Young Hubbell had come from Des Moines, Iowa, and had been enrolled at St. Mark's primarily because Dr. Parkman was its head. The elder Mr. Hubbell had been a clubmate of Parkman's at Harvard, and it was the St. Mark's headmaster's solemn duty to inform his old friend of the boy's passing.

It was a sad, somber June at St. Mark's, although no other deaths were reported among the remaining 17 boys seriously stricken. There would be no Prize Day that spring, and as soon as the local health officials gave the all clear, one by one, youngest to oldest, St. Markers headed home. "Thus" said the Lion, "in deserted halls the Class of 1936 made farewell to St. Mark's."

On Founder's Day, November 11, with the School flag flying at half-mast to commemorate the armistice, the Class of 1936 was invited back to Southborough for their own special Prize Day recognition. That morning, seven were formally graduated with distinction, while a number of awards were also handed out. Of course, the Class of '36 was already in college: 19 at Harvard, nine at Yale, two at Princeton, and one at Trinity. Just before Thanksgiving break, prizes were distributed to the returning students. Both of these ceremonies weighed heavily on the Headmaster, as the ordeal of the polio crisis had affected him deeply. He was committed to seeing that the students who had suffered throughout the challenges of 1936 got their just and proper due as St. Markers.

Over the next 30 years there would be more epidemics impacting St. Mark's. There was a polio scare in December of 1947, and headmaster William Brewster authorized an early start to Christmas break. But everything was back to normal in January. The summer of 1952 saw another outbreak of poliomyelitis and an alumnus died. But the school year was not affected. In late 1954, an epidemic of Type B influenza erupted along the eastern seaboard of the United States. The first widespread outbreak was diagnosed at a school in upstate New York. Schools, particularly boarding schools, were extremely susceptible, and St. Mark's was no exception. By January 1955, there were more than 100 flu patients at St. Mark's. While in no way as severe as the great pandemic of 1918, the situation was serious enough to essentially quarantine the St. Mark's campus and cancel the traditional VI Form Dance. Dr. Theodore H. Ingalls, as both the St. Mark's school director of health and the principal Southborough physician, was the only individual permitted to move back and forth between the two worlds, as there were scattered flu cases throughout the town as well. Local residents requiring isolation during their recovery were welcomed into the St. Mark's infirmary and diligently cared for alongside the infected schoolboys. Within a month the crisis had run its course, and the long-awaited dance was finally held in April. The following summer, several polio diagnoses in Boston saw that City's public health officials asking that Brantwood Camp remain open to keep its young charges safe in their New Hampshire isolation for an extra two weeks. None of these, even the 1954 outbreak, were anywhere near as challenging as the School's 1936 experience.

Until 2020.

We've been here before. And St. Mark's and St. Markers have weathered every episode, always persevering and preserving the spirit and mission of St. Mark's through each challenging period. Reading assignments, mailed-in essays, and examination relief have been replaced by online remote classes, Zoom gatherings, and all the efficacy of up-to-date technology. It is that technology which will allow St. Mark's to avoid the empty ending of 1936 by making a virtual Prize Day possible. Like all the times before, we will rise.

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