Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 contains the following:

In the first years of the peace, fresh afflictions fell on European society: the influenza epidemic (perhaps a result of churning up the rich microbe-laden soil in the north of France and Belgium) which carried off some 20 million people around the world ...

This attribution of the flu epidemic's (perhaps) origin to the mixing of soil made me curious, so I was looking around for further sources. Here is one that is freely available (without PubMed subscription): Anton Erkoreka, Origins of the Spanish Influenza pandemic (1918–1920) and its relation to the First World War, J Mol Genet Med. 2009 December; 3(2): 190–194; and it says (notice on soil):

Many factors contributed to it, such as: the mixing on French soil of soldiers and workers from the five continents, the very poor quality of life of the soldiers, agglomeration, stress, fear, war gasses used for the first time in history in a massive and indiscriminate manner, life exposed to the elements, cold weather, humidity and contact with birds, pigs and other animals, both wild and domestic.

Now the words are similar (both citations mention French soil) but the arguments made are quite different. Since MacMillan's appears to be the unconventional one, I am wondering whether I just wasn't able to uncover the right source (the book does not provide any references at this point) or whether it is a glitch in her book. Who knows and can point to specific references that can support the author's argument?

For what it's worth, I've noticed also other (minor) editorial issues, e.g. contradictions as to whether Salisbury may have lost sleep over issues ...

share|improve this question
Just from reading your question I gather that Margret MacMillan read Erkoreka and misunderstood. He doesn't say that the influenza epidemic started because of microbe-laden soil, but that the soil in which people from five continents sneezed, peed and shat spread the virus (which I personally find unlikely, but still). –  Lennart Regebro Dec 21 '13 at 17:18
@LennartRegebro Yes, I also think something like this must have happened. In this interview she also mentions she had to rely a lot on research assistants (because these days she is a busy administrator at Oxford), so maybe this makes it even more likely. However, Erkoreka's paper is just one that I stumbled upon when doing a quick (re)search, and there may be better material (perhaps also in support of the theory in question) out there. I'm trying to give the benefit of the doubt ... –  Drux Dec 21 '13 at 18:57
(Meta) I wish again SE had a feature that would allow me to invite sb. like MacMillan to the discussion by e-mail under my current pseudonym (or from some generic SE account). –  Drux Dec 21 '13 at 19:04
On the other hand, it's easy to create an account, and you don't get bothered by email notifications (at least I don't). –  Lennart Regebro Dec 21 '13 at 20:34
Another short review of the book appeared here. Perhaps author Tyler Cowen studies refer(r)er logs and will give his opinion ... :) –  Drux Dec 29 '13 at 4:51
add comment

1 Answer

This attempt at an explanation completely ignores the very high probability that the 1919 influenza strain was related to the 1889-90 Russian flu, as evidenced by its extremely unusual mortality pattern.

Without an explanation of this relatedness (to the earlier pandemic), I find it impossible to take this explanation seriously.

Update - correction:
The 1918-20 influenza has been confirmed by DNA analysis to be an H1N1 strain (swine flu). The best (circumstantial) evidence to date is that the 1888-1889 epidemic was an H3N8 strain, but this cannot be determined with certainty.

The unusual mortality pattern for the 1918-20 epidemic is apparently due to a cytokinetic storm in which the body's own immune system is enlisted in a positive feedback loop, resulting in young adults being most susceptible, rather than least susceptible, to mortality.

Although it is confirmed that influenza virus can survive for extended periods of time in frozen lakes, there is no evidence at this time that it can survive in soil that regularly thaws. It seems much more likely that the unsanitary conditions of warfare in the trenches, combined with the very large wards common at the time, created ideal conditions for the rapidly mutating Influenza A virus to morph into a fatal and extremely contagious strain. (The two traits are more commonly traded off against each other, except in conditions which keep infected and uninfected individuals in close contact for extended periods of time.)

share|improve this answer
I think the mortality pattern rather has to do with the way it kills and spreads than they being very closely related. The 1918-1919 influenza is thought to be a H1N1 strain while the 1889-90 Russian flu is thought to be H3N8 or H2N2. –  Lennart Regebro Dec 21 '13 at 17:20
@LennartRegebro: Welcome back. That is completely new to me. Do you have a reference? –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 21 '13 at 17:23
This recent study also would be evidence against that and is basically compatible with your statements. npr.org/blogs/health/2014/02/16/277057530/…. One interesting new conclusion was that the 1918 outbreak seems to have started in Kansas rather than in the trenches. –  Mike Feb 18 at 1:55
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.