‘Mrs. Colgate’ Saves the Day

Spring 2024

Illustration by Lauren Crow

In Special Collections and University Archives, there is sparse information about James C. Colgate’s wife, Hope Hubbell Conkling. But a collection of letters indicates that she played an instrumental role in helping to start the University’s first infirmary — at a critical time.  

The building project was first discussed in 1911 at a Board of Trustees meeting, according to Special Collections Librarian Xena Becker. After the board decided to purchase the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house as a location for the project, the building was reconstructed over the next two years.  

“Conkling provided funding to renovate the purchased fraternity house into a functioning infirmary, per two letters from President [Elmer Burritt] Bryan [to James C. Colgate] from late 1911 and early 1912,” Becker says.

By 1913, Colgate’s first infirmary was fully equipped. So by the time the Spanish flu hit campus in October 1918, it was designated as an established medical facility.

Bryan wrote to James C. Colgate in the fall of 1918 to express his gratitude to Conkling: “I wish that you would say to Mrs. Colgate that the infirmary saved the day. We were able to take the best of care of our sick boys.”

In the same letter, Bryan reported that the Spanish flu infected 70 students, with one death in the community. Altogether, there was a variety of pandemic-associated disturbances that year — Colgate opened late and the football season was canceled. Nevertheless, the infirmary was there to help restore some normalcy.

“She [Conkling] was clearly essential to the infirmary becoming and remaining an operational unit on campus through at least 1919,” offers Becker.