“Keep Germs to Yourself”: Lessons from the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

The Loras College Center for Dubuque History (CDH) preserves a unique artifact documenting the incidence of contagious disease in Dubuque between 1890 and 1924. City clerks recorded our city’s experience with the 1918 influenza epidemic in the leather-bound ledger now featuring a loose spine and yellowing pages. When I first encountered the book, I deemed it important because I could use it as a starting point for teaching research skills using local history. After engaging in an undergraduate-faculty research project each spring semester since 2016, I realize that through this project my students and I are recovering a lost episode of our community’s past and placing it into an international context. Beginning with digitizing and analyzing the Communicable Disease Book of Dubuque, students moved on to gathering news articles and obituaries from the Telegraph-Herald and Democrat-Times. City council records, city ordinances, city directories and hospital records added to our understanding. Because 104 young men enrolled in high school and college at our institution became infected, yearbooks, undergraduate bulletins, student publications and registrar office records provide insight into its impact on Loras College. In addition to creating a 1918 influenza archive at the CDH, the end goal of the project is to create an interactive website for community use. The information uncovered by students offers a lens through which to understand the COVID-19 pandemic.

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