Where history and biology intersect: decoding the source of the 1918 flu epidemic

Feb 10th, 2014

Janet Harron

Where history and biology intersect: decoding the source of the 1918 flu epidemic

The groundbreaking research of a Memorial University history professor on the 1918 flu epidemic is highlighted in the most recent online issue of National Geographic magazine.

Dr. Mark Humphries’ paper Paths of Infection: The First World War and the Origins of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (published in the January 2014 issue of the journal War in History), uses substantial documentary evidence to link a disease event in China in late 1917 and early 1918 to the 1918 pandemic, which killed 50 to 100 million people. His work, building on that of earlier scholars, examines how this outbreak of flu in China (which was originally thought to be a form of the plague) was happening at the same time as the British government was mobilizing tens of thousands of Chinese workers for service in Europe, shipping them across Canada in secret, sealed trains.

Those workers then went on to work behind the lines on the Western Front and may have been the source of the pandemic.

The documents that led Dr. Humphries to this conclusion were uncovered in the British and Canadian National Archives as well as in Canadian and Chinese newspapers.

In his archival work, Dr. Humphries found evidence regarding a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 that was later identified as being identical to the Spanish flu. He also found records indicating that a significant percentage of the Chinese workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe in 1917 were quarantined with flu-like symptoms.

The discovery happened during the research for his 2013 book The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada.

 “I had to explain where flu came from and in doing so had to choose amongst the three competing origins theories: one that centres on the midwestern United States, one that focuses on Europe, and the other on China," said Dr. Humphries. "All three had been proposed in the 1920s and each has their adherents now. But I did not feel that the evidence was very strong for any of them so I began to dig into the documents and my sources led me to agree with historians like Christopher Langford, Dorothy Pettit and Janice Bailie who had suggested a Chinese origin for the virus. My own research managed to tie their previous findings together and support the theory with strong new evidence which I think makes for a pretty strong case ... as least as far as such a thing is possible in history. Ultimately I cut this part out of my book as it deviated too far from the main argument and chose to publish it separately. It will not be the last word on the subject and I hope it sparks some debate and controversy because that is how we advance our knowledge.”

Dr. Humphries is understandably excited by the National Geographic coverage.

“As a historian, it's nice to know that your colleagues have read something you wrote, but it is really special when your research reaches a wider audience too, in this case an international one," he said. "That does not always happen that often. In this case,National Geographic is a magazine that was always around my house when I was growing up -- my dad was a high school geography teacher -- so that made it extra special for me."

The National Geographic story has also resulted in national and international media interest including CBC Radio’s As it Happens, the BBC History Magazine and newspapers from as far away as Hong Kong.

The almost century-old story has implications for the current day and age.

“When long-standing patterns of socio-economic exchange are disrupted or begin to change as they did during the Great War, there are often unintended consequences for humanity. That is really the main point I make in my article,” Dr. Humphries said. “In the actual paper, I use flu as an example to talk about the unexpected consequences of a global war which most people mistakenly assume only involved European nations fighting in Europe.”

Dr. Humphries thinks that virologists, epidemiologists, and historians should work more closely together in order to help unlock the mysteries of how deadly pandemic viruses begin.

“We all tend to use and privilege different types of evidence which leads us in different directions, sometimes meaning that we actually work at cross purposes. In the article I talk about how the European origins theory must be incorrect because the pattern of diffusion suggested by epidemiologists assumes that the virus was distributed by demobilizing armies in the fall of 1918 when none of the belligerents began to demobilize until well after the pandemic was on its last legs. I think that it is in areas like these, where history and biology intersect, that we find opportunities for collaborations we might not normally imagine."

Dr. Humphries hopes that tissue samples may one day be found in China to conclusively prove his case.