Skip to content Skip to navigation
Skip to global navigation Menu

Two alumnae furnished the Raymond Room, formerly President Raymond’s library in Main Building, as a place for recreational reading. In 1927 Elizabeth G. Houghton, ’73, established the Florence M. Cushing Fund, an endowment fund for the Raymond Room, given in memory of Miss Cushing, a member of the Class of 1874 and a longtime trustee of the college. 

The Museum, originally the Calisthenium and Riding Academy, was again remodeled to provide an auditorium, stage and classrooms and renamed the Assembly Hall.

Some 500 alumnae attended the annual meeting of the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College (AAVC) at the Hotel Vanderbilt in New York City. After a visit to the campus on January 17, the group received reports from President MacCracken and trustee Minnie Cumnock Blodgett ’84 about the college’s war program, which included a summer training camp for nurses intended to draw young women from across the country and planned in cooperation with the American Red Cross. The gathering was also addressed by the French High Commissioner, André Tardieu, and Stephane Lausanne, the editor of Le Matin.

The alumnae voted to send a Vassar Relief Unit to France. Over the next several months the unit was recruited from alumnae, with funds donated by students, faculty, alumnae and friends. The chairman of the Vassar Unit committee, Fanny S. Townsend ’02, and the faculty leader, Elizabeth H. Haight ’94, worked with the overseas adviser, Major Julia C. Stimson ’01, chief of the American Expeditionary Forces Nursing Service.

Under the direction of Margaret Lambie ’07, members of the unit served in the eight Red Cross Recreation Huts for convalescent soldiers at the American Base Hospital Center, Savenay, France. After the armistice four members of the unit remained in France when it was transferred to Verdun to work under the French government.

Members of the Vassar unit attended dedication ceremonies for the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfauçon on Memorial Day, 1919. “It was the time of daisies,” Lambie recalled. “The thoughts of the Unit naturally turned toward the College campus and daisy gathering days of Sophomore year. … [We] mounted the slope leading to the cemetery. There we thought we saw another field of daisies but it proved to be a field of white crosses marking the graves of thousands of American dead.” Margaret Lambie, Verdun Experiences

Beyond Vassar

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” was ratified.

Amabel Roberts ’13, a nurse attached to the No. 2 Reserve Base Hospital at Étretat, France, died from septicemia, the first resident of her home town, Madison, NJ, and the first in her unit to die in military service in World War I. “‘He saves others, himself he cannot save,’” she had written from Étretat to her friend and mentor Professor Elizabeth Hazelton Haight the previous November. “That is to me typical and descriptive of the soldier…. A life without sacrifice is utterly valueless. This is brought home to me more and more every day…. Yet surely it is better to die young, than to live a hundred years to no account…. I am more thankful every day that I took up nursing—even though my bit is so very small indeed. More than half my class at the training school are over here—among them my dearest friends. Am I not fortunate?”

On March 11, 1918, The New York Times reprinted from “Dooins,” a weekly paper published by Roberts’s unit, an account of her death and funeral. “‘At 6:15 P.M.,’ the paper says, ‘Amabel S. Roberts, R. N., Army Nurse Corp…gave up the life she had devoted to the service of others. Her illness, one of the most deadly of infections, had lasted barely three days. On Thursday evening the unit acknowledged defeat. It was the silence that one noticed most…. The services were to be at the Blanquet, the nurses’ quarters, and in a moment the narrow street was choked with troops, who formed in a long double rank on either side of the street leading to the gate. For fifteen minutes the men stood at attention while the simple services were being held inside the Blanquet, and then the leaded casket was brought out and placed on a stretcher carriage covered with flags…. A plain black wooden cross will mark that grave; a cross differing in no wise from the crosses which surround it except in the name painted in white upon its arms. It was suggested that some more elaborate memorial might be fitting, but surely none could fit so well. It is a soldier’s cross for one who died like a soldier.’”

The Class of 1913 pledged several scholarships to the Nurses Training Camp planned at Vassar for the summer of 1918, and Professor Haight, Cora J. Beckwith, Roberts’s instructor in zoology, and Dean Ella McCaleb presented a Memorial Minute in her memory to the Vassar faculty. “Her name,” they said, “will live in our traditions, associated with quiet simplicity, the beauty of steady work and complete devotion to the service of humanity.”

On May 8, 1919, President MacCracken, members of the faculty and students planted five trees on the shore of Vassar Lake to commemorate Amabel Roberts and four other members of the college community who had lost their lives in the war. On June 8, 1919, the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College (AAVC) placed a tablet in the Chapel in memory of Roberts and three other alumnae who died in service to the country.

Fire destroyed a large part of the rear wing of Main Building. A defective flue in the kitchen where steaks were being broiled fed the fire upward into the maids’ quarters, where it burst from the walls on the fourth floor and then through the roof. Arriving within ten minutes, the Poughkeepsie Fire Department chopped a hole in the ice covering Sunset Lake to secure a water source. Firemen in the building threw personal effects from student rooms out of windows, and students formed chains from Main to Rockefeller Hall, passing the goods along the lines for safe storage. Student volunteers rescued furniture and records from the offices housed in the building.

A brick firewall separating the rear wing from the main body of the building stopped the fire from spreading, limiting the damage. Most of the students lost very little, and the total damage was estimated at $165,000, $80,000 of which was covered by insurance. Most of the maids, however, lost everything they owned. An emergency fund was set up, and each maid was given $10 cash and a spare set of clothes immediately. Temporary housing for the 75 displaced staff was set up in the Gymnasium.

President MacCracken, who rushed back to campus from New York City—having received a telegram stating that Main Building had been destroyed—praised the Vassar and Poughkeepsie communities for their quick-thinking and teamwork, without which the losses from the fire, he said, would have been much worse.

An anonymous poem in the February 16th issue of the Miscellany News commemorated the students’ efforts:

A filing case of steel it was
Four maidens bore it on
They said with nonchalance, Some load!
And dumped it on the lawn.
Then Prexy called three stalwart men
(He thought ‘twould be a cinch)
But when they tried to move it in
It wouldn’t budge an inch

And an anonymous student recorded the event in a letter:

“One whole wing is gone. It was a defective flue. The fire was in the east wing, where the assembly hall, dining room, maids’ rooms, etc., were. The maids lost everything. The girls stood in lines and handed things along from Main to Rocky and got a good deal out…. In Davison we got to bed pretty early but heard parts of Main crashing down all through the night.”

Dr. George Sarton, Carnegie research associate at Harvard University, spoke on “The History of Science.” The Belgian mathematician and philosopher immigrated to the United States in 1915, having published the first issue of Isis, the pioneering journal in the history of science. Although Sarton completed only three volumes—tracing science from the Greeks to the 14th century— of his projected nine-volume Introduction to the History of Science at the time of his death in 1956, he is considered the originator of the discipline.

A new constitution for the Students’ Association was adopted by the faculty and ratified by the students. A more definite statement of the Honor System and provisions for a uniform proctorless system in all halls were important changes.

“If you want students to respond to their opportunities at Vassar, make them responsible. There is no other way.”

Henry Noble MacCracken, The Hickory Limb

Philosopher, psychologist and educator John Dewey from Columbia University lectured on “The New Social Psychology.” Dewey’s influential work on progressive education, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education appeared in 1916, and his Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology was published in 1922.

Federal agents took Agathe Wilhelmine Richrath, an instructor in German, into custody after a search of her room at the college revealed evidence incriminating her as an alien sympathizer. President MacCracken, noting that “Miss Richrath has been under observation for some weeks,” said that he had received no complaints “of exhibition of alien sympathies in the college class rooms, although I have heard of some indiscretion in private conversation.”

Miss Richrath, who had lived with her parents in Philadelphia for several years before coming to Vassar, was eventually interned in a camp for enemy aliens. She was the third resident of Poughkeepsie charged by the federal authorities, who sought a week later the cancellation of a prominent local physician’s naturalization papers.

The Thompson Library addition opened to the Vassar community on Founder’s Day. During the summer of 1918, all 100,000 books were shifted to allow for expansion space in every section.

The college was host to the first “Township Day.” A branch of the Public Health Committee under the chairmanship of Helen Kenyon ’05 directed events that included: a community sing; a pageant, “The Opposite End of the World: A masque of the Junior Red Cross”; a track meet for children; a picnic lunch in the Circle; an address by President MacCracken; demonstrations in the Red Cross workroom, in the dairy, and on the farm; and presentation of banners to the fifteen schools enrolled in the Junior Red Cross, of which President MacCracken was national director.

Wartime marked the graduation of 267 seniors at the college’s 52nd Commencement. A symposium on “Vassar Women in the Nation’s Program” took the place of Class Day ceremonies, and five seniors were already married, with husbands in military service. In his commencement address, “The Treasure and the Heart,” President MacCracken called the American college “the most effective training camp of the organized and unanimous spirit of democracy.” In reference to the upcoming summer’s national training camp for nurses, he declared, “Just as the shipyards of Newark are launching the fabricated vessels, so Vassar campus is to launch the most vital of the women’s army, the well-trained pupil nurse.”

Earlier, in his baccalaureate sermon entitled “Fearlessness,” Rev. Robert Elliott Speer DD told the graduates: “It is not only the fearlessness of the boys abroad that will win the war, but also the fearlessness of the parents at home in sacrificing their sons to a cause which they know is right.”     

The New York Times

Among the $150,950 in aggregated annual gifts to the college was $500 from the Class of 1909 in memory of Inez Milholland Boissevain ’09. The crusader for women’s rights collapsed while addressing a gathering in Los Angeles in 1916 and died a few days later, on November 26, at the age of 30.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, a special trustee committee set out to find a way for the college “to have some definite, necessary and helpful part in its prosecution.” The result, the Training Camp for Nurses at Vassar College, welcomed 435 young women—from 42 states and graduates of 115 colleges and universities—to an intensive summer-long course of study designed to reduce the usual three years of nurses’ training to two. Organized under the auspices of the National Defense Council, supported and partially funded by the American Red Cross and directed by Professor of Economics Herbert Mills, the camp drew its faculty from Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Yale and other institutions.

The recruiting pamphlet set the tone for the program:

“We shall assume at the outset that you are not simply a dabbler or a sentimental dreamer, but a serious, practical, patriotic girl or woman sincerely anxious to throw your energies and your abilities into some form of work that is really going to count.” Meeting that challenge, 418 of the original enrollees finished the course in September. One of them, Katherine Densford Dreves, summed up the spirit of the program:

“Imagine daily rising at the crack of dawn, followed by corridor setting-up exercises, bed making and before breakfast, damp dusting your room all around and as high as you could reach (my reach was high). Then came eight hours of class and laboratory, with lights out at 10PM. We had military company formation; I was the elected sergeant of Company F, Squad 1.

“Illustrative of group morale—one day Dean Mills announced in chapel that the next day, July 4, was a holiday. Smiles! He then said we should decide whether we would take a holiday or continue with our regular schedule. A group sigh! And then—cheerfully we continued with our regular schedule.”

Katharine Densford Dreves, “Vassar Training Camp for Nurses,” American Journal of Nursing, 1975

On a year’s leave from Vassar, Caroline Furness ’91, professor of astronomy and director of the Observatory, embarked for Japan. Appointed as a special member of the educational committee of the National Council of Women, she carried messages to the women of Japan from, among others: the Association of Collegiate Alumnae; the women’s committee of the National Council of Defense; the National Organization of Public Health and Nursing; the bureau of nursing of the American Red Cross; William Howard Taft’s League to Enforce Peace and the National Association of Principals of Secondary Schools.

Furness presented a letter from the National Council of Women to the Women’s Patriotic League of Japan, and she spoke to Japanese audiences about American collective methods of health protection. After her return, Furness wrote about this experience in “Medical Opportunities for Women in Japan,” which appeared in The New York Medical Journal (1919) and in “Impressions of Japanese Women,” in The Vassar Quarterly (1920).

The annual fee for tuition and residence was raised to $650. 

Beyond Vassar

Health authorities realized that the deadly strain of influenza seen in increasing numbers in the military since March was spreading widely among the civilian population and that many countries around the world were on the brink of an unparalleled flu epidemic.

In strict quarantine since the opening of college, Vassar students raised $600 for influenza relief work in Arlington, made masks and swabs in the Red Cross workroom at the college, collected clothes and blankets, made layettes and every morning squeezed hundreds of oranges in the basement of Students’ Building.

On September 28 Congress approved a special $1 million fund to enable the Public Health Service to recruit physicians and nurses specifically to battle the epidemic.

On Oct. 6, Philadelphia recorded 289 deaths from the disease in a single day.

On September 10 Vassar trustee Frank Chambers visited President MacCracken, who was confined to his bed by a persistent throat infection. Explaining that he’d hoped to be joined by two other trustees who had been unable to come to Poughkeepsie, Chambers in effect told MacCracken to resign Vassar’s presidency.

“Polite but indirect, the message stated that since MacCracken’s interest in the college seemed not to be as great as his desire to do war work away from the college, he should leave. The trustees had decided they would like to free him for full-time war service. Decoded, MacCracken knew the statement meant that he had too many radical ideas and was not long for Vassar if the trustees had their way.”

Elizabeth A. Daniels, Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College

In the days that followed, MacCracken learned that the demand for his resignation came from seven of the 28-member board of trustees without the knowledge of most of the others. When the cause of his dismissal shifted from his war work to the college’s $400,000 deficit—not possibly his fault, as all financial decisions rested with the Executive Committee, a group which had included his predecessor ex officio but from which he had been explicitly barred—MacCracken declared that, should he accept resignation, he would resign publicly, stating his own reasons for leaving.

The seven trustees countered, offering a year’s leave of absence, at full salary and effective September 1, during which he would find other employment. Replying that his response would come “in some days,” MacCracken retired with his wife Marjorie to Old Point Comfort, Virginia, to organize their thoughts, leaving their two young children in the care Marjorie’s aunt. MacCracken’s leave of absence was accepted when the board met on September 20, the day on which the seven trustees had originally planned to accept his resignation.

Defended by faculty, students and several trustees, among them alumnae, MacCracken returned to the campus and to his leadership of the college on Monday, November 11, in time to attend a celebration in the Chapel of the armistice ending World War I. Three days later, the Miscellany News quoted his remarks to the already joyous assembly: “You seem to be glad about something. If you’re glad about the same thing that I’m glad about, I know that you are not half so glad as I am”

As news of seven trustees’ request for President MacCracken’s resignation spread among faculty, alumnae and trustees, he received counsel from all sides. Professor Herbert Mills, a faculty leader and a close confidant, at first advised him to accept the trustee group’s mandate, but other powerful members of the faculty, historian Lucy Maynard Salmon prominent among them, urged him to fight back. On October 1 after a resounding faculty vote in his favor, she wrote to him: “This is the beginning, not the end. Do not resign. The fight will be on with president, faculty and alumnae ranged against an antiquated system of academic organization.”

The two other centers of power in the college, the trustees and the alumnae, began asking questions, even about the legality of the trustee group’s actions. Helen Kenyon ’05, chair of the alumnae association, questioned the move from the beginning, and she began a series of interviews with faculty members and trustees on which she reported to the alumnae. “All told, from what she had heard…Kenyon concluded that there was nothing to prevent MacCracken from coming back, that the trustees thought he would come back, and that the September 20 meeting of the board had been illegal….”

Elizabeth A. Daniels, Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College

For his part, MacCracken studied the trustee group’s charges, reviewed the advice and support he’d received and sent a 39-page letter to all of the trustees refuting or correcting the trustee group’s arguments. When the trustees gathered in New York, the full body voted to allow MacCracken to return to his duties as president of Vassar.

Beyond Vassar

“Armistice Signed, End of the War!”

The New York Times

“The whole of the Vassar campus arose at 3:30 a. m. on Monday morning when it became known that the Armistice was signed. The night watchman took his cue from the noise of whistles blowing…and immediately he rang the fire alarm and spread the news, a modern Paul Revere. In the evening, the students saw some Douglas Fairbanks movies….”

The Poughkeepsie Courier

The Poughkeepsie Eagle reported on President MacCracken’s return to the campus on the evening after the Armistice and on his remarks to the students and faculty. “Of course, he had to make a speech, and although it was short, it was heartfelt. Dr. MacCracken said substantially that he noticed they seemed to be glad about something, and if they were glad for the same reason he was glad, he knew they were not half as glad as he was…. He also referred to the armistice as a cause for greater rejoicing….”

Elizabeth A. Daniels, Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College

Beyond Vassar

The Public Health Service estimated that 300,000 to 350,000 civilians had died from influenza, and the War Department reported another 20,000 dead in the military. When the epidemic had effectively run its course, in late 1919, over 600,000 Americans had died from the disease.

The alumnae association announced that an anonymous donor had agreed to help in their efforts to close the nearly $400,000 debt and deficit disclosed by an audit in July. The problems arose from the recovery from the fire in Main, rising administrative expenses—some of them associated with war efforts—and wartime inflation of costs for necessary permanent improvements to the physical plant.

The donor offered a matching gift if the alumnae raised $150,000 by March 1, 1919. On February 28, the alumnae had completed their task, and the following day President MacCracken announced that the college was free of debt and deficit, owing to the anonymous matching gift and to $120,000 raised through subscriptions and $80,000 dollars from the company insuring Main Building.

By May the alumnae had raised over $450,000.

The Years