The People: Oshkosh in 1918


Susan McFadden, Department of Psychology
Beth Prine, Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology
Teri Shors, Department of Biology/Microbiology

In the spring semester, 2001, three very different classes at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh joined together to create the "Flu Project", a multidisciplinary approach to learning about types of research relevant to the study of epidemiology, archeology, and gerontology. As a result of participating in the "Flu Project" through their individual courses, 70 students participated in data collection and analysis about the spread of a deadly disease, the memorialization of those who died from the disease, and the memories of those who survived.

Initiated and led by Dr. Teri Shors, virologist in the Biology/Microbiology Department, the "Flu Project" investigated the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic which spread around the world in about 3 months, taking only 7 days to get from the East Coast to the West Coast of the US. Worldwide, it is estimated that 20-50 million people died in this most destructive pandemic ever documented. Neither the faculty nor the students had known much about the epidemic before the project began, but by the end of the spring semester, all were aware of its scope and effects, particularly in Winnebago County.

The three faculty members who collaborated on this project decided to structure major class assignments around the themes of the "Flu Project". Dr. Shors developed a research project for her Virology class that was completely new in her teaching experience. Never before had she assigned her students to do actual epidemiological work. Dr. Prine adapted an assignment ordinarily given to her Archeological Methods class for the "Flu Project". What was different about this research, compared to work in previous classes, was that the students designed and ran the project themselves with Dr. Prine as a research mentor. Dr. McFadden redefined the interview research she often has her classes in Adult Development and Aging conduct in order to fit with the "Flu Project". However, she had never had an entire class examine the same problem and design interview questions together.

Dr. Shors' undergraduate Virology class learned about epidemiology by studying the death records of persons who died of the flu and related pneumonia in Winnebago County during the months of the epidemic. These students discovered where victims of the flu lived and the conditions of their lives that may have contributed to the contagion and its deadliness. Students also learned the value of record keeping. Their biggest surprise was the inaccuracies in reporting the numbers of flu cases at the actual time of the epidemic. Now, the students have put together a more accurate picture of this historical event and have contributed to the knowledge base about it. Another surprise was the lack of records available today. Schools, hospitals, and the police department (all cases were reported to the police in 1918), no longer had any records available to aid this study.

Dr. Shors also supervised an undergraduate student who conducted an Independent Study project by doing archival research on the pharmaceuticals used to prevent and treat the flu. The student also researched the effects of physiological stress during the flu epidemic, showing that there was an increase in the number of still births, premature births, and suicides during this time period. Graduate students in Biology/Microbiology studied the spread of the flu among soldiers from the area who went off to fight in WWI and they also examined the impact upon local hospitals when so many people became sick in such a short period of time.

Dr. Prine led her students in Archeological Methods in a study of the material aspects of American mourning practices during and immediately after the flu epidemic. The study centered on a field survey of the headstones of flu victims buried in Oshkosh's Riverside Cemetery. By doing this, these advanced students became familiar with some of the essential methods and techniques of archaeological research, including, but not limited to: teamwork, forming research questions and hypotheses, project planning, archival research, developing field forms, time studies, field survey, recording field data, digital and archaeometric photography, database planning and management, data transfer, developing qualitative and quantitative data, data processing and analysis, production of field and analytical reports, and presenting these reports to an audience. Of particular note, this project helped the students gain competency in some of the key issues identified by the Society for American Archaeology's Task Force on Education as the areas of least competency for American archaeology students at the undergraduate level.

Finally, Dr. McFadden's psychology class in Adult Development and Aging interviewed elderly persons about their memories of the epidemic. They went to local senior centers and long term care facilities and also interviewed older persons in their homes. They inquired not only about memories of the epidemic, but also about home remedies used at the time to treat various illnesses and infections as well as the role of doctors and pharmacists during the epidemic. By participating in this research, the students learned about the ethics of interviewing older persons, the procedure for applying for Institutional Review Board approval (received early in the semester), the design of interview questions to be employed by multiple interviewers, and the analysis of qualitative information. An extensive database search revealed no studies of the ways experiences with serious and frightening illnesses in childhood can shape the ways older adults view health and illness in later life. Thus, the students understood that their contributions to this research project constituted inquiry into an original question. This extended the meaning of the reports they wrote on their interviews. These reports contributed to their overall individual grades in the course in the usual manner, but they also provided data for the research project as a whole.

The classes met together several times through the semester to report on progress with the various projects. The faculty also spoke to classes other than their own to report on what students were doing. All students received an e-mailed newsletter that updated them on the different research projects being conducted in the three classes. This helped students to see how connections could be made among very different types of classes, and how one topic could be addressed empirically in many ways by various disciplines. In other words, the "Flu Project" was a Liberal Arts Laboratory.

The faculty conducted student evaluations in all classes about their participation in the "Flu Project". Students gave high ratings to their enjoyment of the project, the value of what they learned about research, and the benefits they received from working on a project coordinated among three diverse classes.

One of the unexpected benefits of the project was the community involvement experienced by all the students and the faculty. Dr. McFadden took groups of students to the Evergreen Retirement Community and the Oshkosh Senior Center, both to conduct interviews and also to report on their findings. Her students also conducted some interviews in the homes of older people who had contacted her because of publicity in local newspapers. Students accompanied Dr. Shors and Dr. McFadden to give a talk to the Winchester Historical Society. Dr. Shors' students went to the Winnebago County Courthouse, the Oshkosh Public Library, the Neenah Public Museum, and the Surveyor's Office in Neenah. Dr. Prine's students did their research at the Riverside Cemetery and some also visited Kunde Memorials, Inc., in Oshkosh, to learn about how headstones were made in the early 20th century.

Both Dr. Shors and Dr. McFadden have had students who extended their class work on the "Flu Project" through Independent Study research. Dr. McFadden's student will accompany her to Denver in April to present a paper on the project at the meeting of the American Society on Aging. Other conference presentations on "Flu Project" have been given (or will be given) at the American Society for Virology, the North Central Branch for the American Society for Microbiology, and the Society for American Archeology. Reports on aspects of the project will be submitted to the Journal of Emerging and Infectious Diseases, Journal of Social Archeology, Journal of Aging and Health.

What's Next?

Two of the three faculty members who collaborated on the "Flu Project" are planning another collaborative research effort involving these same classes in Spring, 2003 (Dr. Prine has been named the chief archeologist for the state of Iowa). This time the project will be called the "Polio Project". Dr. Shors' virology students will study the polio virus, its importance in the history of public health, outbreaks in the 20th century, and finally, the discovery of an effective vaccine. Dr. McFadden's students will conduct interviews with older people about their experiences with polio in their own families and their fears of the epidemic prior to the development of the vaccine. They will also interview middle aged "baby boomers" about their memories of receiving the polio vaccine. Some students may also examine psychological studies conducted in the 1950s with persons suffering from polio, particularly those confined to "iron lungs". In addition, Dr. Shors and Dr. McFadden are discussing the project with History professor and a professor who specializes in public health.

The "Flu Project" came together very quickly early in the spring semester, 2001. Now that the faculty have successfully conducted this kind of group collaboration among their classes, they are eager to try it again. Obviously, this time they have more time to plan the project and they hope to be able to expand the collaboration to include persons from other disciplines.


Students who participated in the "Flu Project" were introduced to practical aspects of epidemiological, archeological, and gerontological research. They were able to put a local, "human face" on class assigned research. This collaborative effort exposed them to aspects of the three disciplines that they ordinarily would never have learned about and they observed how different kinds of researchers can approach the same issue.

The range of issues that could be studied in this manner is limitless. Participating in a coordinated, course-based research project like this enables students to experience some of the joys and benefits of a liberal arts education by observing how a single question is investigated in the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities.