NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

100 Years Later

LaMontagne Lecturer Considers ‘Mother of All Pandemics’

NIAID’s Dr. David Morens
NIAID’s Dr. David Morens

Writing in his diary on Sept. 27, 1918, Charles Corning, former mayor of Concord, N.H., described how flu was blazing through his corner of the world “as fire shrivels the fields, laying out communities and taking a toll of death unprecedented.”

The next day, he observed, “A heavy sense of anxiety and apprehension like a dismal cloud in midsummer weighs heavily upon us because of the deadly ravages of the so-called Spanish influenza. Funerals jostle one another so the sable procession goes on.”

That sable procession would eventually claim 167 lives in Concord and at least 50 million more around the globe—a toll of death unmatched by any other recorded disease outbreak before or since.

This extraordinary pandemic and what scientists still can learn from it is the topic of the 2018 John Ring LaMontagne Memorial Lecture titled, “The Mother of All Pandemics and Her Naughty Children: 100 Years of Behaving Badly,” by Dr. David Morens, senior advisor to the director, NIAID. The lecture is scheduled for Tuesday, Apr. 10 at 3 p.m. in Lipsett Amphitheater, Bldg. 10.

In 2005, using preserved tissue from several 1918 flu victims, researchers determined the gene sequence of the strain of influenza A virus that sparked the pandemic and concluded that it was of avian origin. But exactly how, when and where it made the jump to humans remains unclear.

The 1918 virus was deadlier than other known flu viruses and it killed a substantial proportion of people, those ages 20 to 40, who typically survive flu infections—a phenomenon still not fully understood. Moreover, not only was the virus inherently more damaging than other influenza viruses, it had a marked ability to partner with bacteria to cause severe, often fatal, pneumonia.

Morens will describe how research on 1918 flu virus and the pandemic it caused is informing current efforts to understand how and why new flu viruses with pandemic potential emerge. He will also discuss investigations aimed at developing new and better flu vaccines, a major focus of NIAID research going into the second century of the 1918 pandemic era.

The LaMontagne lecture honors contributions to NIH and public health made by LaMontagne during his three-decade career with NIAID. He earned international recognition and widespread admiration for his distinguished leadership and accomplishments in fighting emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. He served as NIAID deputy director from 1998 until his untimely death in 2004.—Anne Oplinger

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Staff Writer: Amber Snyder (link sends e-mail)