Just inside the doors of Doane Academy, the main administrative building up on the hill at Denison, are two plaques, one on either side.
As they’re inside, they’re easy to miss. On your way out, you’re looking through the windows and onto the academic quad where commencement was held this year. On your way in, you don’t see them unless you look back over your shoulder.
Actually, looking back can be a useful thing if you don’t make too regular a habit of so doing. You can see things you might miss, and learn stuff about not just the past, but of how we got where we are, which is where we’re getting to the future from.
To one side, appropriate for Memorial Day, is an inscription honoring William Jordan Currin, Class of 1913, who was the first Denison alumni to die in World War I. Adding to the poignancy, he died at Cambrai on November 11, 1917 . . . the date which would precisely one year later become Armistice Day, the end of the war. Later Americans would convert Nov. 11 into Veterans Day, but on Memorial Day we honor those who not only served but also died in service, and so let us salute Mr. Currin: “He lived the life of a Christian gentleman and died a brave man” in the words of his memorial.
On the other side, a reminder of how a hundred years ago the college honored in general two groups of students who served far beyond national boundaries: not only those who served in the armed forces, but also a regular “platoon” or more of missionaries set apart after graduation for the global mission field, sent from Granville every May out into the world.
The opposite marker says “In Memory of John Cherney, D.U. ’05 – Died from fever contracted in famine relief work, Kuling, China – May 11, 1912.”
Kuling is more often presented as “Guling” today; then and now a resort town near Lushan in Jiangxi Province. It was built as a place for rest and restoration for English speaking missionaries in the 1890s, and later would be an unofficial headquarters in turn both for the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, and later the Chinese Communist Party of Mao Zedong.
Of John Cherney I can find little; directories of missionaries in “China, Japan, and Corea” for 1910 & 1911 show him as an ordained Baptist minister with a wife, unnamed, in southwestern China. But 1910 & 1911 also marked in northwest China the outbreak of the “Manchurian plague,” a respiratory disease that seems to have jumped from marmots to humans, with a truly awful mortality rate, and at a time when transmission methods were still unclear to medical science. It was in Manchuria and neighboring areas that Chinese doctors first recommended “personal protective equipment” like masks and gowns for medical staff to prevent transmission; a French doctor came to help, rejected the usefulness of PPE, and quickly caught it and died. So 1911 is a landmark with current relevance.
Cherney’s fever could have been malaria or any other parasitic or bacterial infection, likely not a viral transmission. But his memorial, telling us he was “Cheerful, brave, unselfish; a noble type of college man” who died of disease in China, reminds us that global questions of epidemiology have been with us for more than a century, and we still wrestle with how to prevent illness and slow spread, through means often both simple and social.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he’s been thinking a great deal about globalism lately, from Xinjiang and Wuhan to Granville and Newark. Tell him how big or small your world is at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.