Photograph by Natalie Tapson, Flickr (CC).
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The Arctic graveyard where Kirsty Duncan excavated the bodies of 1918 flu victims.
Photograph by Natalie Tapson, Flickr (CC).

Canada’s First (and Female) Science Minister is a Badass

If you stay a reporter long enough, stories that you covered once tend to come back to you again. In bad ways, and good: A cleaned-up chemical plant leaks a different toxin. A scientist goes back to old results, and finds something new. A city block that was infamous for murders erupts in fresh violence. A woman who was near-death from kidney failure calls to say she got an organ, and has a family now.

It’s always a little dizzying, your professional past coming back. So it was disorienting to be sitting on a plane last night, reading the news that new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chosen a Cabinet that is half women, and full of immigrants and people of color, and contains Canada’s first-ever Minister of Science. Because, I realized, I know that Minister, though I haven’t seen her in probably 15 years. But if Kirsty Duncan, PhD can marshal government support and public opinion in the same way she muscled a dozen male scientists twice her age to the barely inhabited edge of the Norwegian Arctic, then bruised, muzzled Canadian science may have found the defender it needs.

OK, let’s back up.

In 1997, almost no one, outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some academic virologists, was very much worried about the threat of influenza. The last significant international outbreak had been the Hong Kong flu of 1968. The last potential outbreak—one that worried people enough to trigger a national vaccination campaign, which went so badly that the director of the CDC lost his job—was the Swine Flu of 1976. The planet-swamping 1918 pandemic, one of the worst epidemics in history, was remembered mostly by historians, such as .Alfred W. Crosby, who published America’s Forgotten Pandemic in the same year as the Swine Flu. John Barry’s influential book The Great Influenza was seven years in the future.

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Kirsty Duncan, PhD. Photograph from

But in a suburb tucked up against Toronto’s airport, a young medical geographer had stumbled on the story of the “Spanish flu” while researching a different disease: encephalitis lethargica, the “locked in” syndrome described in Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings, which swept the world in the wake of world War I. Duncan was 30 years old, five years out from completing her PhD at the University of Edinburgh, and she had become obsessed with the lost story of the 1918 flu. In fact, she had vowed to recover its never-identified viral cause, and after years of work, she had identified a place where she thought it might be lurking: a windswept graveyard tucked into the slopes of a fjord above the coal-mining village of Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, high above the Arctic Circle.

How she came to that conclusion was a complicated story, as she told me the first time I met her—in her parents’ house in Etobicoke, where she kept milk crates stuffed with every letter, photograph, journal article and photocopied historical record she could find. I wrote about her quest in October 1997 for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I had just become the infectious disease reporter. (When you work in the CDC’s home town, that’s a very normal beat.)

 For four years, she pored over death records from Alaska, Iceland and Siberia, looking for a place where the unembalmed bodies of flu victims might be preserved.

Climate, political instability and the biology of the disease were against her. The flu virus reproduces and leaves the body within days of infection, and it is genetically fragile and breaks down quickly after death. She needed a site where victims had died quickly and been chilled immediately —and where records existed to confirm those events.

Then a mountaineering friend from graduate school in Edinburgh told her several years ago about a hike he had led across a Norwegian glacier. They’d had terrible troubles, he said, with permafrost.

“I knew there had been flu in Norway,” she said, her voice brightening with remembered excitement. “I knew from one of my professors that they had mined coal far north. And I guessed, if they were transferring people from the mainland to undertake mining, they might have brought the disease.”

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The graveyard lay outside the town of Longyearbyen on Svalbard. Map from GoogleMaps.

In August 1998, after painstaking negotiations with the town, she was on her way to Svalbard to excavate the bodies of six men who had come from the Norwegian mainland to mine coal in the icy dark. With her went a few reporters, including me, and a team that still sounds more like a movie treatment than the roll of a scientific expedition, including the world’s pre-eminent flu virologist, an expert in ground-penetrating radar, a medical archaeologist who had solved what killed the mummies in the Royal Ontario Museum by putting them through an MRI, a pathologist who had done exhumations in Canada’s far north (and was later accused of autopsy fraud) and a crew of Cockney excavators called, ridiculously, Necropolis, bossed about by a man whom everyone called Tattoo John. (“Anytime anyone wants to build anything in England, there’s a cemetery they have to deal with,” he told me in Longyearbyen’s tiny pub. “London’s one big graveyard.”)

The expectations were high, but so were the team’s internal tensions. There were disputes about how many scientists would be allowed inside the tent shrouding the gravesite, about who would get the autopsy samples first for testing, about how much information to release to the press. (One day, taking a hike on the edge of town, I almost stepped on one of the team members, who was secretly recording a radio commentary behind a mound of mine tailings.) The group was nervous that a rival team, working on autopsy samples in Washington DC, might retrieve the virus first, and quietly furious that team had been helped by a bold but casual grave-plundering foray in Alaska that skipped all the permissions Duncan’s group had painstakingly sought.

And, in the end, the geography—and, possibly, climate change—let them down. Despite what looked like good radar images, showing masses resembling coffins well within the permafrost, the bodies turned out to be buried at a level where they repeatedly had frozen and thawed. They were not solid and intact, but soft-boned and gooey; the cellular architecture of the organs had broken down. Eventually, after bitter disputes among the collaborators, some broken viral material was recovered. But, as they had feared, the other team—led by Jeffery K. Taubenberger, MD, PhD, now of the National Institutes of Health—reached the goal first, retrieving, reassembling and sequencing the virus of 1918.

The first drafts of history were not kind to Duncan. Two books published the following year—Gina Kolata’s Flu and Pete Davies’ Catching Cold—characterize her as passionate but unserious, and an article in the British press by the daughter of one team member portrayed her as manipulative and dismissed her for wearing “latex leggings” in the cemetery. (Duncan wrote her own account, Hunting the 1918 Flu, in 2003. Two disclosures: I am mentioned in it, and I reviewed it in 2005.) I wasn’t myself sure of what to think of her, at the time: She was dedicated and fierce, but in the Arctic, she seemed out of her depth, unconscious of the reputational knives already aiming for her ribs.

But here’s what I think now. That end-of-the-earth expedition may have been a failure, but it was a magnificent one: It was conceived with boldness and imagination, and it fired public enthusiasm for the story of 1918 in a way that none of the patient, repetitive lab work that won the race ever managed. Duncan persevered through sharp elbows and obvious sexism, returning to the universities where she taught before the Svalbard excavation, and then crafting the local political career that brought her Wednesday’s appointment. She wrote a second book, Environment and Health: Protecting our Common Future, and served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Under the last government, Canadian science was badly battered: Scientists were denied funding, prevented from speaking to journalists, and, when they went to conferences, forced to accept government chaperones. (You can see the aftermath in the Twitter campaign #unmuzzlescience.) To recover, it needs government backing, and money—but it also likely will need advocacy, and boldness, and a certain amount of flair. It’s likely that no one would have envisioned Duncan, after Svalbard, as the country’s future first Minister of Science. But if she still possesses the focus and ferocity and even a bit of the glamour that allowed her to persuade a planeload of impatient, paternalistic experts to the top of the world, she might be exactly what Canadian science needs.

Stories I wrote about Duncan and the search for the 1918 flu between 1997 and 1999 are preserved on this page that I put up in 1999 (so yes, the design is ugly, and the lower tiers of links no longer work). An essay that I wrote in 1999 about drinking with the diggers of Necropolis—which I love, but never published—is up at my Scribed account.

Update: There’s some dispute—check the comments below this post for good examples—as to the status of the Ministerships that Duncan and some of her fellows hold. The best explainer I can find on this rather complicated question is this one from the CBC.