A Hunt for Life-Saving Lessons from a Grim Past The great flu pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people -- more than any other disease outbreak in the history of the world. John Oxford, a prominent British professor, wants to know why the disease was so deadly -- and what the current generation needs to rise to the challenge of a global epidemic.
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A Hunt for Life-Saving Lessons from a Grim Past

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A Hunt for Life-Saving Lessons from a Grim Past

A Hunt for Life-Saving Lessons from a Grim Past

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. The great flu pandemic of 1918 killed more people than any other disease outbreak in history. A prominent British professor is exhuming long-dead victims of this disease in order to learn from the illness before the next pandemic comes. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: When you walk into the hectic and overstuffed offices of Professor John Oxford one thing is immediately obvious. This scientist is passionate to the point of obsession with the pandemic flu of 1918.

On one wall hangs a reproduction of a painting of World War I soldiers, major victims of the pandemic. Old photos line the windowsill of his office, which is at the Queen Mary School of Medicine in London. And a quarter of a human brain, once used in a flu study, sits in a jar on a table.

Oxford seems mildly eccentric. Even though it's winter, he's wearing a light blue summer weight suit with sleeves that show off four inches of his shirt cuffs. But he's not a dotty professor. He's a prominent virologist. Unlike most of his colleagues, he doesn't fuss with PCR tests and computers. He says there is still so much to learn from the fearsome history of the pandemic, which killed an astounding 50 million people.

He picks up a photo of a couple stiffly posed for a wedding portrait to make the point.

JOHN OXFORD: You can't imagine 50 million of these people dying. What you have to do is concentrate on two and try and bring them to life. And here's an example of two of them. This couple, they were married, beginning of the autumn of 1918. They were married for six weeks and then into that village moves the virus. He catches it, they battle it out, the pair of them, and she did not make a run for it and he dies.

HARRIS: The woman is Gladys Rogers. Oxford found her as part of his effort to find individual victims of the 1918 flu. He's tracking them down partly because he would like to study their long buried corpses. Most victims now would be nothing but bones, but a faded newspaper clipping on Oxford's crowded bulletin board shows that's not always the case.

OXFORD: Right at the bottom, in the corner, you can't see it too easily from here, but if you get closer, there's a picture of a woman in a lead coffin and she's been in that lead coffin for 200 years. And when the lid was taken off, cut off, two people fainted because they thought she'd been in there only a few days when she'd been exceedingly well preserved.

So that's when we realized that sometimes in these lead coffins people are very well preserved for hundreds of years. So that's why we're looking for people who died in 1918 in the flu outbreak and are buried in lead coffins. And you can find them. We're finding, well I've got ten of them lined up at the moment.

HARRIS: He's hoping to find intact organs from old pandemic flu victims to understand better why that flu was so virulent, so deadly.

OXFORD: One of the big unanswered questions at the moment is, exactly how these 50 million people died.

HARRIS: Didn't they just die of the flu?

OXFORD: It's a complicated question, exactly how they died. I mean, fair enough, were infected with influenza, but, you know, exactly what happened at the molecular level. If you could enter the lung and enter the air sac, what happened?

HARRIS: Maybe the virus killed the lung cells directly. But most of the victims were young and healthy. So it's possible their own immune systems actually overreacted to the virus and started attacking their lung tissue with fatal consequences.

OXFORD: All those are very important questions because these days there are some wonderful drugs to dampen down the immune system. But if that's not the case and you give them these drugs, they're probably going to die because they haven't had any reaction at all. So you have to get it sorted.

HARRIS: Oxford has not only investigated bodies buried in local cemeteries, he also traveled to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen to dig up six coal miners who died of flu in 1918 and were buried in the frozen ground.

So far, the bodies he has unearthed have been badly decomposed. He has had better luck with tissue samples that his long dead colleagues collected and preserved back in 1918.

OXFORD: Yes. We've got the samples, the paraffin wax samples are here. So, that black smudge there is a piece of lung, it's black because of the coal dust in 1918 and everyone's lungs were black. It's been fixed in formalin, it's been embedded in wax and stuck on the wooden block.

And from that piece of tissue you can make a little shaving off the top and examine it and actually if it's got the virus in it, influenza virus if this person died of flu, you can kind of detect the genes of influenza virus in that sample. And you can in fact resurrect them and recreate the virus.

HARRIS: John Oxford used this material to help an international team decipher the genetic structure of the 1918 flu virus. He's hoping more samples will also help show exactly where the disease started and how it spread around the world.

But Oxford is also interested in looking beyond the biology to the human dimensions of flu. He wants to learn more about how people react to a swift and deadly disease, people like the widow in the wedding photo, Gladys Rogers.

OXFORD: And to be dealing with someone, helping someone, nursing someone who's got the Spanish flu of 1918, your life was on the line. It was just like being in the front trench in the war. Putting your head above the pulp and getting a bullet in your head. She deserves a medal, Gladys. And we gave her one.

HARRIS: That medal was in the form of a stained glass window, which Oxford helped design. He was moved to create it after learning about the sacrifice, the bravery of ordinary citizens during the pandemic. The window he envisioned looks to the past, but it also looks forward to suggest what we'll have to do to face the next flu pandemic. It's a short cab ride from office.

OXFORD: We're going to the church. Just around the Royal London Hospital.

HARRIS: The taxi nudges its way through London traffic. We turn off the main road and into the neighborhood Jack the Ripper terrorized 30 years before the great pandemic. Until recently he was much more notorious than the Spanish flu, even though he had five victims not 50 million.

We pull up near a stone church. It's been converted into a library for the University of London. We head inside. The bright winter sunlight creates a glow in the three panes that make up the pandemic flu memorial window, the bravery of the past, the grim reality of 1918 and aspiration for coping in the future.

OXFORD: You see the right hand one is the white heat of science and technology, so that looks to the future. The molecule there is one of these new drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza. That's the sort of drug we will depend on in the first wave of this first pandemic of the 21st century.

HARRIS: The middle window shows a steeply rising graph. That describes the dreadful death toll in 1918.

OXFORD: That's why the purples are there, the browns are there, the reds are there, that's the ominous third of the window. The crux of the window is on the left hand side. And this is the wavering blue. Light blue and dark blue. And the artist means by that is holding out a hand to someone, like Gladys helped her husband.

HARRIS: Will we be like that during the next pandemic, Oxford wonders. These days we expect so much from drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza. And he says, frankly our attitudes toward death have changed more than medicine itself has.

OXFORD: It can be exceedingly difficult for these modern societies to contend with this outbreak when it comes. They've never had to make decisions about infection. They never had to decide whether they should go swimming in a lake because they might get polio from that lake. I had to decide that when I was 12. I mean, what a decision for a 12-year-old. It was a world of infection. And then suddenly antibiotics came and they all thought it was all over. So, I think these modern societies will be on the verge of panic given the first pandemic of the 21st century. That's why it's so important to prepare.

HARRIS: For Oxford, that preparation means not only stocking up on drugs and preparing vaccines, but getting people to understand that we will need to find many heroes, like the heroes of 1918, in order to rise to the challenge of a global flu pandemic.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you can find John Oxford's theory at how the 1918 pandemic began at our website, NPR.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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