Hunting the 1918 Flu
One Scientist's Search for a Killer Virus
In 1918, medical science was at a loss to explain the Spanish flu epidemic, which swept the world in three great waves and killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people in just one year, more than the number that died during the four years of World War I. Today, while the Spanish flu has faded in the public’s memory, most virologists are convinced that sooner or later a similarly deadly flu virus will return with a vengeance. Responding to this sustained interest in the Spanish flu, Kirsty Duncan in Hunting the 1918 Flu presents a detailed account of her experiences as she organized a multi-national, multi-discipline scientific expedition to exhume the bodies of a group of Norwegian miners, buried in Svalbard, all of whom died from the Spanish flu virus. Duncan weaves a twofold narrative: first, the story of a large-scale medical project with the objective of uncovering genetic material from the Spanish flu and second, a first-hand account of the turbulent politics that emerged as the group moved towards a goal where the egos were as strong as the stakes were high. Duncan, herself not an epidemiologist but a physical geographer, is very frank about her bruising emotional, financial, and professional experience on the ‘dark side of science. ’ Readers witness how the research team engages in ‘entropic’ behaviour, despite its presumed dedication to science and the search for the virus, as the compelling story unfolds through the beginning progress and harrowing conclusion of her project (1992-2001). In her account of pursuing the deadly killer, Kirsty Duncan raises questions not only regarding public health, epidemiology, ethics of science, and the rights of subjects but also about age, gender, and privilege in science. While her search for the virus has shown promising preliminary results, it has also shown the dangers of science itself being subsumed in the rush for personal acclaim.
- Short-listed, Science in Society Book Award, Canadian Science Writers' Association 2004