The Girl Who Could Save the World; Fifty Million People Perished in the 1918 Flu Epidemic. Experts Now Warn a Similar Disaster Is Imminent. Could a Beautiful Woman Who Died at 20 and Is Buried in a Lead Coffin Hold the Key to Beating the Lethal Virus?

By Cooper, Glenda; Barrett, Robert | Daily Mail (London), May 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Girl Who Could Save the World; Fifty Million People Perished in the 1918 Flu Epidemic. Experts Now Warn a Similar Disaster Is Imminent. Could a Beautiful Woman Who Died at 20 and Is Buried in a Lead Coffin Hold the Key to Beating the Lethal Virus?


Cooper, Glenda, Barrett, Robert, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: GLENDA COOPER;ROBERT BARRETT

LONDON was a desperately sad and exhausted place to be in that autumn of 1918. Racked by grief for the millions of young men slaughtered in the Great War, people were now facing a deadlier enemy than even the German snipers - the Spanish flu, or Spanish Lady as it became known. It was killing people by the thousand.

Almost overnight, the city changed. Public transport ground to a halt as the drivers of hansom cabs and buses fell ill. Express trains were suspended for the same reason.

Burglaries rocketed as more than 1,000 Metropolitan Police officers went absent, schools were closed because teachers and pupils had been struck down, and, with the fire brigade severely understaffed, fires raged for hours unchecked.

The Government could do little more than advise people to wear masks when they went out, and to avoid large gatherings in public places. Yet the death toll rose so quickly that undertakers ran out of wooden coffins.

Cardboard ones had to be used instead.

The flu pandemic of 1918 was the most devastating in world history - more virulent even than the Black Death in the 14th century - killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide. And it remains one of the most baffling medical mysteries.

The first known case is thought to have occurred in Kansas in 1914. It arrived in Britain in the spring and summer of 1918, possibly with shiploads of American soldiers, and caused a mild illness.

In the autumn, the virus is thought to have mutated into a more virulent form against which there was no natural immunity in the population. Within months, it had raced around the world.

But what caused this common virus to mutate into such a killer - a killer of the young and healthy rather than the elderly and frail?

The number of casualties grew with every passing hour and the virus was no respecter of wealth or rank. General Botha, the first Premier of South Africa, was one victim, as was Prince Erik of Sweden and Sir Hubert Parry (composer of George V's coronation music). The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was one of the few who survived it.

One of those who did not was a beautiful 20-year-old volunteer nurse with a riot of chestnut, wavy hair and soft brown eyes. Her name was Phyllis Burn, an upper-class girl, whose life was in many ways very ordinary.

SHE left behind no diary, no works of art, no great discoveries. Yet in her death, she has become extraordinary. She is crucial to modern scientists' attempts to prevent such a devastating pandemic from blighting mankind again.

When Phyllis died 84 years ago, her family made sure she was buried in the most expensive of coffins - lead-lined - which preserves the body much better than oak.

Her remains may, therefore, still harbour genetic material from the Spanish flu virus which could be used to develop new treatments to safeguard us today.

Virologists believe they are engaged in a race against time before the flu virus mutates into another form as lethal as that of 1918. And they need to know more about Spanish flu to prepare for that eventuality.

Professor John Oxford, a world renowned British virologist, who is part of an international team studying the flu virus, scoured thousands of burial records from 1918 before identifying Phyllis Burn as a possible candidate for the research project.

He spent a year or more trying to find members of her family to ask permission to exhume her body - without any luck.

Now, after an extensive investigation by the Mail's research editor, Robert Barrett, we have traced Phyllis's family, the only people who can enable the completion of this project, which could save millions of lives.

This week we set in motion contact between her family and scientists which may at last reveal the deadly secret of the Spanish Lady. …

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The Girl Who Could Save the World; Fifty Million People Perished in the 1918 Flu Epidemic. Experts Now Warn a Similar Disaster Is Imminent. Could a Beautiful Woman Who Died at 20 and Is Buried in a Lead Coffin Hold the Key to Beating the Lethal Virus?
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