Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist's Search for a Killer Virus

by Kristy Duncan
289 pages,
ISBN: 0802087485

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Back-Stabbing and Deceit among Scientists Unearthing a 1918 Mystery Killer
by Rob Thomas

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is not the first illness of international significance thought to have arisen in the Guangdong province of China. In 1918-1919 the misnamed Spanish Influenza raged across the world in three great waves. It is estimated 20 to 40 million people were killed in one year. Modest estimates put the First World War death toll at 12 million.
As Kristy Duncan notes, in Brazil overloaded corpse collectors were begged to accept the body of a family member who had been dead for five days. They accepted the body but only when the family agreed to receive a fresher corpse in their loved one's place. The disease was a tragedy with a scope so large it is almost impossible to imagine.
But Duncan's book is not the story of the deadly flu pandemic. It is also not the story of the next wave of the deadly virus which virologist are convinced is coming. Sparked by personal interest, Duncan set out to map the virus that caused this deadly disease. She assembled a team of international experts from four nations for a project requiring nearly 10 years from start to finish. Along the way she dealt with difficult ethical, cultural, safety-related, media and political issues. Meanwhile she confronted the dark side of academia: personalities hungry for recognition, back-stabbing and deceit, and the notorious power struggles over funding.
In her own book, Flu (1999), Gina Kolata relates how Duncan can solemnly recite statistics on flu deaths from memory: "Half a million died in the United States, 19,000 in New York City." This phenomenal personal interest is at the heart of Duncan's story. It was the reading in 1992 of Dr. Alfred Crosby's book, Epidemic and Peace, 1918 (1972) that inspired Duncan to initiate her quest. Two years of searching for the frozen bodies of victims in Russia, Alaska and Norway finally led her to the town of Longyearbeyn on the island of Spitzbergen, Norway. Seven miners had carried the sickness to the remote island in 1918 and were buried there. Permafrost conditions on the island were such that there was a good chance the bodies and possibly the virus had been preserved in the long frozen ground.
Duncan was an unlikely leader for her project. She was young, in her mid-twenties, and a female. And though she was a professor, her background was in geography. Her first step entailed assembling her important team of experts, which she subsequently had to struggle to control.
The project involved careful negotiations with Norwegian authorities and community, devising strict safety protocols and securing funding. A major setback occurred in 1997 when Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger published some results in the journal Science. He had managed to recover partial sequences of viral genes from archival sources. The news would eventually prompt the Centre for Disease Control to abandon Duncan's project. Furthermore, Taubenberger went on to join Duncan's team but secretly participated in an Alaskan exhumation project. (Duncan suggests that Hultin and Taubenberger's project was illegal).
To make matters worse, once material was successfully exhumed she was forced to fight for the interests of her Norwegian and Canadian colleagues when the English virologists she had brought into the project attempted to highjack the team's samples. But this is only to give the reader an idea of the most scandalous bits. Duncan's book is a chronicle of power struggles, backroom deals and media manipulations.
The most serious criticism that can be levelled against the book is that it's one-sided. There's no question that Duncan's tale of intrigue allows for some score settling. On the other hand, Kolata and others have publicly criticized Duncan. Those who have followed her project in the press have heard the other side. She should have addressed some of these criticisms in her book.
Duncan's style is plain. Her favoured devices are repetition and the rhetorical question, both of which are used to almost comical excess early in her book: "Could the Spanish flu reappear? Maybe."¨on page five, followed by "Could the Spanish flu reappear in the future? The answer¨maybe" on page 20. But, in fairness, her book raises important questions, and the plainness of her writing could as easily be described as "readable," an adjective that is rarely apt when speaking of books by academics.
If Duncan's book reads a little like an accident report it is no less engaging for being this way. She has a litany of ills to relate. In the final analysis, Hunting the 1918 Flu is a cautionary tale for the young academic and an eye-opening account for the public. And ultimately, like all stories that are worth telling, it is the story of a great struggle. ˛

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