Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick



A smallpox epidemic that broke out in Keokuk in 1882 spread panic throughout a three-state area that included Van Buren County. It all started when two students died who attended a medical college in Keokuk. In 1850, Keokuk College of Physicians and Surgeons started operating and promised the town a hospital. It was connected to the University of Iowa until 1870 but continued to function until 1899. The other school, Keokuk Medical College, was eventually absorbed by Drake Medical School in Des Moines in 1908.

Keokuk medical colleges graduated over 3,200 physicians. Six hospitals used for treatment of wounded soldiers during the Civil War made the city a major heath-center in the 19th century.

In the 1880s, Keokuk paid a high price for the prestige of having two medical colleges. One of course, was the smallpox fear that escalated when State health officials blamed the outbreak on a corpse received at one of the medical schools from Chicago, that was intended for dissection. As students left the college, they carried the germs of the disease in many directions. Merchants in nearby towns posted signs forbidding Keokuk residents to enter their stores!

Most of the students were from Illinois. The short epidemic died out soon because people who are vaccinated are safe from smallpox. It remains a mystery why all of the students at the two colleges were not vaccinated.

40 cases were reported among students in 1881 and 1882. A 22-year-old from Seneca Falls, New York died on New Year’s Eve. His name was Henry Hubman. There was an argument of whether his death was caused by smallpox or measles. Authorities took no chances and buried his body at night. In Van Buren County, P.C. Sheppard of Douds died a few days later, and was also buried at night.

After a student developed smallpox upon returning home to attend a wedding in Peoria (Illinois,) fifty of the guests at the event were hurriedly vaccinated. Smallpox vaccinations cause the arms to remain very sore for about two weeks.

(from Rogues and Heroes from Iowa’s Amazing Past. George Mills. Iowa University Press, 1972)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick