In the middle of summer, most of the students are long gone, faculty are planning their fall classes or doing their own research, and staff are looking forward to vacations. But there are still a lot of people on campus, including vice presidents, deans, department staff, library staff, etc.
In our earliest years, this was NOT the case. All of the senior administrators and most of the faculty left town soon after Commencement, and most did not return until late September. Some would come back briefly to handle matters that had accumulated but, for the most part, the university was run during the summer by support staff, who answered letters, greeted visitors, made what decisions they could, and deferred weighty matters until the fall. If something urgent needed attention, there was the telegraph.
Historical records contain telegrams asking and responding to questions about specific inquiries. Also present are carbon copies of letters informing the correspondent that the President was spending the summer away from the city and would be pleased to respond upon his return to the office in the fall.
Why was this? Were we at one time so laid-back that business could be postponed for three months while everyone kicked back for the summer? Well, Hopkins was a much smaller institution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both in terms of student body and staff. In our earliest years, the entire senior administration consisted of three individuals: the President, the Registrar, and the Treasurer. No vice presidents, no deans or directors until 1889, just those three plus support staff. Graduate student admissions were handled by the faculty, with paper documents just a formality that could be attended to after classes began.
But why did so many leave town for the summer? The answer to that lies in the fact that Baltimore historically is a southern city, with a southern climate, at least in the summer (and as I write this, it’s 93 warm degrees outside). Along with those temperatures came the dreaded yellow fever and malaria. Usually associated with tropical regions, both were real dangers in 19th century Baltimore. Before cause and prevention were understood, those who had the means to do so left the city during the warmest months. Some went only a few miles out of town, but others journeyed much farther. President Daniel Coit Gilman and many of the faculty routinely spent the summer months in Maine, in and near what is now Acadia National Park. The climate was cooler, the air was cleaner, and life was good. Telegraph lines hummed with messages back and forth from those “holding the fort” in Baltimore.
This fear of disease was also largely responsible for classes beginning in early October; September was generally quite warm and the danger of disease did not subside until the temperatures cooled. Commencement was held in June, considered the latest time when it was “safe” to remain in the city.
Now that yellow fever and malaria have been eradicated (around here, at least) and buildings are air-conditioned, it’s safe to remain in Baltimore throughout the summer. So, enjoy the nice, warm weather of a Baltimore summer!