12 November 2018

With the centenary of Armistice Day falling during this year’s National Pathology Week, the College ran a special WW1-related lecture event delivered by virologist and eminent Fellow, Professor John Oxford.

‘Hidden Enemies: What was the real killer of World War 1?’ was a public lecture event run in collaboration with Centre of the Cell on 8th November at Queen Mary, University of London.

Over 100 people attended the event head in the Perrin Lecture Theatre at QMUL’s Blizard Institute, which was introduced by Professor Fran Balkwill, Director of Centre of the Cell, and Professor Jo Martin, President of the Royal College of Pathologists.

Professor Oxford, a well-known expert on flu and pandemics, started his talk by showing a scale model of the H1N1 virus and explaining how viruses invade human cells. He then went on to tell the audience how an outbreak of this tiny microbe caused more loss of life than the Great War itself, but also that the overwhelming scale of the pandemic, which is estimated to be up to 100 million deaths worldwide, must have been a result of the wider impacts of war.

Professor Oxford gave his theory on where the flu outbreak may have started; in an area of the Western Front in France where foie gras is popular, and where soldiers and locals came into lots of contact with geese, a reservoir for the flu virus, which can mutate to infect new hosts. He explained how the combination of this, the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions of the field hospitals, and the mass movement of people at the end of WW1 in 1918, was the ‘perfect storm’ that led to so much disease and loss of life.

After Professor Oxford’s fascinating lecture, audience members were given the opportunity to ask him questions. In response to questions about future pandemics, Professor Oxford was positive; he said “We’ve never had such highly rated scientists, and that reassures me” and “This time we’re ready”.

Further discussions were enjoyed over some drink and nibbles, and guests were also able to find out more about pathology during WW1 from some display boards used for the College’s ‘Blood and Bugs’ roadshow.

The lecture event was part of Centre of the Cell’s Big Question Lecture series, which offers the public, and particularly young people, the chance to hear biology experts discuss their work and question them about it. The lecture’s ‘big question’ title was developed by members of Centre of the Cell’s, Youth Membership Scheme, who met Professor Oxford and suggested the title after hearing about his work. The lecture event was recorded and will be available online very soon.