A Daily Dose of Perspective

Pick a day, any day, and read the headlines. What you encounter there seldom inspires optimism. There is a frightening specter of an Ebola epidemic; a more virulent strain of jihadist brutality; disquieting trends of economic inequality. And that’s just on Monday.

If we had a scale to record the goodness or badness of the state of the world, where would we reside on the spectrum? I suspect most of us would say we’re on the end that’s labeled Careening Toward an Apocalypse. People are worried, and there is plenty to be worried about. However, there is an antidote to the despair-inducing dramas playing out on TV screens and Twitter feeds. It’s called history.

You want problems? Check out 1918. Just as the worst war in the annals of mankind was winding down, a conflict that claimed the lives of 16 million people, a flu epidemic sprinted around the world, killing 30 million more. Thirty million.

On October 9, 1918, the Stanford Daily ran an article on its front page under the banner headline, “Men in Barracks Are Quarantined.” More than 300 students had been diagnosed with the flu, and conditions were becoming desperate. The story reports that men were not allowed to leave campus. Eating clubs near Encina were turned into infirmaries, and the Alpha Tau Omega house was converted into a hospital for women.

As I’m writing this, the number of deaths caused by Ebola is around 5,000. Any preventable death is one too many, of course. But a historical lens offers important perspective to the size and scope of this and many other present-day problems.

With the recent launch of the Daily archive we have a great new tool to excavate that history. It covers more than 18,000 issues of the newspaper, all the way back to its first edition in 1892. You can read more about it here.

There are many reasons to celebrate the Daily’s milestone achievement. For one thing, it’s just plain fun—a trippy sojourn through memories of college days past. Alumni are going to have a ball finding favorite people and moments from their days on the Farm. (The archive features a day-by-day “calendar” that enables users to locate individual issues, or search by keyword.) Some of the most peculiar (and popular) discoveries so far—a 1990 photo of two students demonstrating how to use a condom, for example—hint at this recreational use. More seriously, the archive is a fabulous resource for scholars and historians.

And there is another, less obvious benefit to a volume that spans nearly 125 years of institutional history: as a beacon of remembrance, a reminder that dark days are nothing new. A small item from April 28, 1903, reported that a freshman student from Japan, Jimpo Kanada, died of typhoid. There would be eight more such reports over the next six weeks, as Stanford students succumbed to an illness that 19 years earlier had claimed Leland Stanford Jr. while he was traveling in Europe. We may worry about many things today, but dying from typhoid isn’t one of them.

Such revelations are sprinkled throughout the Daily archive. Here’s another example, from an article in 1976 about the killing of Edward McNeil, a Stanford postdoc: “McNeil’s murder is the fifth unsolved murder of a member of the Stanford community in three years.” 

Wait . . . what? Five murders in three years? One of them, unsolved to this day, happened at Memorial Church, where 19-year-old Arlis Perry, the newlywed wife of a sophomore premed student, was murdered with an ice pick. It is shocking to read the details of this and other killings and even harder to reconcile the fact that one of them occurred in Stanford’s most sacred space.

We live in troubled times. Problems plague us. And the same could have been said 20, 50 or 100 years ago. History can’t solve those problems or subdue our worst fears, but it can serve as a valuable calibration meter. Thanks to the Daily, we have another means to access it.


Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

Email Kevin