The Untold Epidemic of 1916

Learn about the epidemic of measles and whooping cough that swept over Harrisburg in the year 1916.

A graph of the numbers of diseases per ward. Source: Faith Swarner

I was presented with a kind of mystery this semester. For our final project, we were to find information from the PA State Archives to produce a piece of digital media about Harrisburg. When choosing topic ideas, I wanted to look at medicine in Harrisburg. I find medical history very fascinating, and I thought this project might be a good time to explore medicine used in the past in a local setting. That is when I requested the Book of Diseases as I refer to it, from the State Archives. 

It was a large volume, about a foot long and three inches thick. Its cover was well worn and the pages were old and yellowed from time. On the front of the book was only the title Diseases. Inside was a myriad of information. The book was from a hospital somewhere in Harrisburg that had to have existed and been operational from the years 1913 to 1917. The book was a record for patients coming into the hospital. It was used to record the date, the patient’s name, age, address, ward number, their disease diagnosis, who reported them, how many family members were in their household, when they were removed from quarantine, who removed them, when they could go back to school, and any other relevant information about the patient. Besides the information about the patients, there is no information about what hospital the book came from. It was a mystery, but what was inside gave way to so many more questions. 

Inside the book tracked diseases from the first of the year in 1913 to half way through 1917 when all entries abruptly stopped. I wanted to examine the full book for my project at first, maybe talk about the different diseases recorded within, but another idea quickly gave way when I stumbled onto the entries for the year 1916. Before, the entries of diseases were varied. Some chicken pox, mumps, pneumonia, the usual illnesses of the time. The year 1916 was different. 

It was filled with entries of whooping cough, and most especially, measles. A whole page could go on with no other diseases other than measles. It was clear that an outbreak of measles and whooping cough had taken place that year, and I wanted to track that information. 

My findings from the book itself provided mass amounts of information. I learned many things just by focusing on one year in the book. I saw the epidemic of measles cases that was clear in the data, and that there was a whooping cough outbreak that same year. I also learned that a number of cases that were recorded came out of the same house. It was a common occurrence to see multiple cases coming out of the same house, sometimes only two or three cases, but other times over five or even ten. 

Page 113 of the Book of Diseases. It shows a multitude of measles cases, as well as all the data collected by the nurses. Source: PA State Archives

There were many things that I learned just from examining three data sets from the book. It was not uncommon to have full pages of just measles cases. Most cases were of younger children, the average age of the cases recorded was five years old. The max age of a measles case recorded was 37 years old. There were 2,109 cases of measles recorded from January to June of 1916, and 116 cases of whooping cough recorded from that time period as well. The ward with the most cases was ward seven with 338 cases recorded. 

The Book of Diseases contained so much information I want to study and explore in the future, and I am so glad I was able to put what I learned into a website so others could learn as well. My examination of the book would have been useless if I had not had a way to share my findings. This digital media class provided me with a way to do just that. In this class I learned many skills which went into my project. I learned how to use Excel spreadsheets and utilize equations to gain a deeper understanding of the data I was recording. I used that skill to examine all the cases and make a cart of them for my website. Building a website was another important skill I learned in this class. I used the platform Omeka to build my website, which was taught in class. It is a great website for recording sources and collections of information and it was perfect for showcasing my data. Digital history provided a lot of learning by doing, so in this I learned how to digitize documents, use Zotero, work in an archive, and so much more. I am glad I was able to take this course because now I feel confident in my digital abilities and now can expand on them in other real world situations. I am grateful for this class and all the opportunities granted to me at Messiah University

Faith Swarner is a senior Public History major at Messiah University. She also works as a work study for the History, Politics and International Relations Department. Currently she in interning at the Army Heritage Center Foundation and is working on creating a history for Korean War Mash Units. In her free time she is the President of Minds Matter, a mental health advocacy group on campus.

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