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

by Kirsty E. Duncan

The influenza epidemic after the First World War was the deadliest outbreak on record, killing an estimated 20 to 40 million people in one year. Kirsty Duncan, a geographer at the University of Windsor, became obsessed with the flu after reading a book about it, and eventually tracked down seven flu victims buried in permafrost in northern Norway. She hoped that their bodies would yield samples of the virus so that its genetic material could be decoded. It was an ambitious plan. Duncan persevered for eight years, putting together an international team of virologists, pathologists, surveyors, diggers – a massive undertaking that she managed to pull off, much to her credit.

Hunting the 1918 Flu attempts to tell the story of the troubled project. Duncan appointed herself project leader, which didn’t sit well with the top scientists she recruited. They ignored her. They stopped returning her calls. She seems surprised by their reactions, while freely admitting that she knows little about influenza, nothing about medicine, and has no academic track record. “I am the project leader,” she says repeatedly, but saying it doesn’t make it so. It never occurs to Duncan that some medical training might be needed to run a complex, multinational medical project, if only to avoid trampling on toes.

The Norway dig was highly controversial, and Duncan received her share of criticism for unearthing the bodies. This book is her defence. She stuffed 15 binders with every fax she sent or received on the subject, and is determined to set the record straight with this evidence. An epistolary book based on faxes is a novel idea, but not necessarily a good one. The reader is left feeling as if they have blundered into an endless meeting with no coffee and no exit.

What gets lost in the paper trail is the point of the project. We search for the science story in Hunting the 1918 Flu but find only project management. We never learn anything substantial about the flu bug, or the scientists’ efforts to decode the viral RNA. Duncan must not have been invited to that meeting.