Thursday, June 11, 2015

LSTA grant project update

It's full steam ahead on our LSTA grant project, Public Health in Oregon: Accessing Historical Data for Scientific Discovery.

Over the past few weeks, our graduate student assistants Sherra Hopkins and Rachel Blume started scanning collections Max and I selected, and creating metadata for the resulting digital objects.

The first round of digitization included our 1891-1901 record of deaths, a rich collection of data that we think will interest many researchers. I was fascinated to look at these scans in detail, which tell us so much about the state of public health in our state in the late 19th century.

Unsurprisingly, we see many deaths from tuberculosis. It's interesting that it's variously described as "tuberculosis," "phthisis pulmonalis," and "consumption." What do the differences in terminology reflect? Were these terms understood differently, or did it just depend on who was reporting the information, and what term they preferred?

Also fascinating is a report on a woman named Mary Preiss, who "committed suicide by taking carbolic acid." Her place of death is "French Flora Oberle's establishment." I immediately suspected that the establishment was a brothel and that Mary was a prostitute. Some quick research I did on the Oberle family of Portland supports that hunch so far!
There are over 100 more scans of these records waiting in the wings, all with some amazing stories to tell about people in Portland. Soon we hope to be able to show the process of converting these analog materials into a machine-readable dataset!

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