Last month, scientists hunting a deadly virus exhumed seven miners who died 80 years ago in the Arctic. But not everything went as planned

Esther Oxford
Saturday 26 September 1998 23:02

MY MOTHER shovelled the earth as she shovels her potato plants back home. With gusto - swinging the pick over her shoulder then flinging it down with a focused thump. Except that this time she was digging for coffins. My father stood beside her looking a little useless. He is proficient at harvesting potatoes, not soil hacking. Besides, his mind was on other things; how much permafrost would have to be dug up to reach the seven corpses? Would they find live virus? What were the chances of contamination?

Around them, members of the team worked with a conveyor-belt like precision, three scientists digging alongside five professional exhumers. Soil in the barrow, barrow to be wheeled out of the containment tent, barrow to be pushed up that slippery, plastic-covered hill, soil to be dumped in a carefully monitored heap. They worked in silence, aware of the state- of-the-art microphones being dangled at the entrance to the barrier tent. The press had been there from day one, 16 August, eight days ago. All wanted to be there for that moment - that moment when the shovel would hit the first coffin, that moment when the lid would be sawn off to expose the face of a perfectly preserved, 80-year-old corpse to Arctic, all-night sun.

My father, John Oxford, a professor of virology at the Royal London Medical College, was expecting the corpses to be frozen solid in long, coffin-shaped boxes of ice. The ice would melt and be chipped away and underneath would lie seven perfectly preserved coal-miners, dressed in old-fashioned miner's clothes, hands by their sides, hair still soft, eyes closed peacefully. The bodies, he suspected, would have personal items nestled into the crevices between coffin and corpse: maybe a watch, a ring, a letter from a loved one, a safety helmet. Visions of the men after tissue samples had been taken from their lungs, livers, kidneys, bone marrow and brains disturbed him, he said. But the remote possibility of finding live virus, or at least material fresh enough to help pin down the genetic structure of the 1918 Spanish Flu virus - which wiped out between 20 and 40 million people within a year - allayed most of his concerns.

Dr Rod Daniels, a microbiologist from the National Institute for Medical Research in London, was also digging on site that day. He too was wondering what the corpses would look like, wondering how he would react when he saw them. "I'd seen dead relatives who'd been through the hands of morticians," he said later. "But I'd never seen corpses which had been in the ground for 80 years." To deaden worries, he just kept digging. There were other concerns to think about: the shipment of the samples back to England; the pleasure of being the first in the international team to handle the samples back at the laboratory - possibly the first person from the four countries (Norway, England, Canada and the US) to find the genetic footprint of the virus. "Besides," he explained later, "the grieving for these gentlemen is long over. I think the pastor summed it up very well when he came up to the site and said, 'What these people were is not what is now in the ground.'"

The press had been told that the sight of the frozen coal-miners would not be for their eyes. That included me: no allowances would be made for Professor Oxford's daughter. So we stood outside, dressed in Norwegian jumpers and duck down, and waited for odd snatches of sound, an expression of amazement or joy, a shout or a hurriedly called meeting. Time passed. The sun went in, mist descended in clumps and the temperatures plummeted. Still the digging went on. The smooth mountains of Svalbard, a cluster of small Norwegian islands 1,200km from the North Pole, looked sinister now: forbidding, gray, luminous - not the pink, curvaceous, fleshy mounds of a few hours ago. I thought about the words of the grave-diggers just that morning: "Every day that we've been digging down for those men, it has rained. It has rained ..." In the distance the Longyearbyen glacier loomed white in its frozen cup. Melted baby glaciers flushed through the valley, hurtling froth towards the glassy fjord.

DR KIRSTY DUNCAN is a lecturer at the University of Toronto and the University of Windsor, Canada. She teaches medical geography, climatology and meteorology. I knew she was beautiful when my father first mentioned her almost 18 months ago. He described her as "exotic" and "young" (she is 31, he is 56) and "rather good at Scottish dancing and weight-lifting".

Duncan first heard of my father's work with the Spanish influenza two years ago. She called him up and told him of a plan she had: to exhume the bodies of seven coal-miners who had died in the 1918 influenza epidemic in the small Svalbard community of Longyearbyen. "I became interested in influenza after I read a book on the 'flu pandemic in 1993," she explained to me over a packet of cashew nuts one afternoon during the first week of digging. "I was horrified by what I learnt. I became desperate to find out what made that particular virus so deadly. I thought that if I could find the bodies of people who had died of Spanish influenza and had been preserved in permafrost, it might be a beginning."

So in February last year she flew to England and met up with my father at the Royal London Hospital. Duncan's speciality is climate change and how it affects human health. She would need a team of experienced virologists behind her if she wanted to be taken seriously, and she'd heard Professor Oxford's name men-tioned on the grapevine My father was flattered by Duncan's attentions and took her to see his favourite "object of curiosity" in the speci-men room: the skeleton of the Elephant Man. Together they whiled away a pleasant afternoon, Duncan remembers, talking about the "artwork" around the office (painted by his five children), as well as "dance and science". "He talked a lot about his family," she told me. "I really admired that. Family are important to me." She smiled and ran a hand across her tightly knotted hair.

My father was impressed by Kirsty Duncan's initiative and thrilled by her interest in Spanish 'flu. She told him about her hunt for perfectly preserved victims of the 1918 pandemic - how she'd spent two years searching for bodies first in Alaska and Iceland, then later in Svalbard, Norway, after a tip-off from a colleague. It had not been an easy task finding the graves, or even establishing that people had died of flu in Svalbard. There were no medical records dating back to 1918 (the hospital had been destroyed), there were no church records (the first pastor did not arrive until 1920), and there were no government records: Svalbard only became part of Norway in 1925. But there were some diaries, written by a coal company's head engineer. These diaries were being looked after by a local school teacher. The teacher agreed to translate the diaries and from them the graves of the seven miners were identified: at the foot of the mountains in the freezing, windy valley of Longyearbyen.

So started an affair of fax and telephone which lasted "too long", according to Gillian Oxford, my mother. Meals were interrupted, evenings disappeared, work-days were filled with constant messages, calls and faxes - all of which featured touchy-feely words such as: "overwhelming", "truly", "deep". "Your father and I were excited by one another," said Duncan, wistfully picking up another cashew, and gazing out of the window. "I liked his enthusiasm for the project specifically - but also his enthusiasm for life in general."

During that time Dr Duncan separated from her husband and called my father in tears. I wondered why she bothered; I happened to be visiting that evening, and heard him say, "Worse things could have happened, Kirsty." Like what? I asked him later. "Oh, you know, death, an accident, disease ... you know," he said vaguely. By this time my father had secured all the funding for Phase One (a Ground Penetrating Radar reading of the site, which was taken last October) and half of the funding for Phase Two: the digging up of the bodies. He had also introduced Rod Daniels to the team, an influenza expert with experience of working with highly contagious viruses in Category Four laboratories. Equally important, he'd tracked down the most discreet and impressive exhumation company in Britain: Necropolis.

The honeymoon ended earlier this year. Squabbles erupted - over intellectual rights, funding, management of the press, and leadership. But still it was a shock for me to arrive in Svalbard and find that this "internal strife"was still seething. Not once during the two press conferences of the first week was my father's name, nor the names of other absent virologists, mentioned, even when Dr Duncan was asked specifically to list the names and roles of team members.

My father was in Ireland at the time; two other senior scientists had not yet arrived. Dr Daniels was the only virologist present, and he kept a low profile, not speaking to the press until a journalist from the New York Times insisted on it. Instead other team members leapt into the spotlight. We had the pathologist in the graveyard thanking God "for the majesty of his creation", then posing for the cameras in a biological safety suit complete with respirator. We had a microbiologist trying to lecture us on virology. Most entertaining was Dr Duncan (or Professor Duncan, as she was now referred to). For five long days we had Kirsty Duncan talking endlessly about her hurts, hopes and fears at the graveyard, Kirsty Duncan wearing a short skirt/latex leggings/sexy suede and high heels at the graveyard, Kirsty Duncan in tears at the graveyard, Kirsty Duncan laying a wreath and demanding a minute's silence - at the graveyard. "What are we going to have next?" joked a cameraman. "Kirsty Duncan carrying the Olympic torch?"

Yet funnily enough, I quite liked her. Yes, she was gushy (addressing me as "Dearest Esther", in a scrawled note); yes, she seemed overly interested in the show-biz side of the project, capturing her audience with words about feelings rather than science. But she also struck me as a woman who was brave in her decision to disdain the cloak of neutrality, objectivity and cynicism typical of the team. While she knew nothing about virology (bar the basics), she did manage to inject passion and empathy into the project. Some of the scientists may not have been charmed by her cosy approach, but many people in Longyearbyen were. It was important to them to have respect shown to their dead.

"I know my limitations," she said humbly, when I had the temerity to suggest that her "virology-free background" might sometimes prove embarrassing. "And I do rely heavily on them for science knowledge ... But you know what?" She paused for a moment, leaning forward beseechingly, nostrils flaring, brow wrinkling. "I have never felt at a disadvantage not being from science." Twisting the ring on her wedding finger, she repeated a line I had heard several times before: "I have always stressed to the team the importance of recognising the work of fellow colleagues from other disciplines." She smiled timdily, then layered on a wider, very winning grin. I was bewitched.

FIVE DAYS into the project, my father and mother flew into Svalbard, bursting into the luggage hall with a scientist and book-writer in tow. In my father's arms was a huge, papier-mache model of a virus, battered and bruised now from its world travels and numerous television appearances. On his head was a mad Russian hat.

I drove them the seven minutes it takes to get into town, then to the hotel lounge - a cathedral-ceilinged room overlooking the fjord and some mountains. There, at 11.30pm, Professor Oxford found himself in conversation with an Icelandic cameraman. After some pleasant small-talk, the conversation took a more pointed turn. "Do you feel you have been side-lined?" asked Thorvadur Bjorgucfsson. "No", replied my father, taking a sip of beer. "Do you feel out in the cold?" persisted the cameraman. "No. In fact I feel in the middle of it," said Professor Oxford, evenly. "But it bothers me," said Mr Bjorgucfsson, "that your name has not been mentioned." My father didn't say anything for a moment. Then he said, "Maybe it is better that my name is not mentioned. Have you noticed that some people have removed their names from the project?"

I looked with surprise at my father, twisted sideways in his chair. He must be tired, I thought. Why else would he distance himself from his "dream" project? "If we manage to get frozen samples from the bodies," he'd told me months before, eyes alight, "if we manage to get the genetic footprint of the 1918 virus ... there is absolutely no doubt that this will be the project of a lifetime for all the virologists involved."

Until recently my father and Dr Daniels relied on lung tissue supplied by the archivist at the Royal London Hospital for their research. The tiny pieces of tissue had been taken from the lungs of soldiers and children who died of influenza in 1918 and carefully stored away. Unfortunately the samples were preserved in formalin which made it impossible to extract an accurate "footprint" of the genetic structure of the 1918 virus. The point of the Svalbard project was to find fresh tissue samples which had not been affected by chemical treatment.

By comparing the genetic structure of the 1918 virus with subsequent, less virulent strains of influenza, my father thinks it may be possible to pinpoint the deadly genome. One of the greatest scientific mysteries of this century could be explained: what it was about that particular virus which enabled it to wipe out between 20 and 40 million people.

The discovery would have practical implications. "If we identify the 'deadly motif', we will be able to target that gene in the development of new anti-viral drugs," explained my father. Any future outbreak of a similarly lethal virus could be effectively controlled: "Once we know which part of the virus causes morbidity, then when a new influenza virus arises unexpectedly - like the one in Hong Kong earlier this year - the first thing you do is look at the genes in that new virus and say to yourself, 'How do those genes compare to the 1918 genes?' If you see they are exactly the same, you are in trouble. That would be the moment to pour resources into preventing a pandemic. If on the other hand, you find that the genetic structure is not related, you can relax a little bit."

The project also promised to reveal secrets about Encephalitis lethargica, the "sleepy sickness" featured in the film Awakenings. Five million people worldwide withered from this "infection of the brain", which peaked in the mid-1920s. My father thinks that the outbreak might well have been triggered by the 1918 influenza epidemic. "I suspect the 'flu may have spread from the lungs of victims to the brain and stayed dormant for seven years. But to clinch that connection we have to show that 'flu can be detected in the brain of the corpses," he said. Brain tissue would be taken.

My father had been animated as he explained the ins and outs of the project to me. Now, as he sat talking to the Icelandic cameraman, he looked drained. A short time later my mother noticed the change, and suggested a hot shower and bed. He excused himself and together they said goodnight.

Over the next few days I barely saw my parents. My father was off doing television interviews, my mother was busy being friendly to other members of the team: Dr Charles Smith, forensic pathologist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, in Longyearbyen to take samples; Professor Tom Bergan, a microbiologist from the University of Oslo, responsible for securing permission to dig; Alan Heginbottom, a retired geologist and expert in permafrost, in charge of the hole; Sir John Skehel, a leading British virologist from the National Institute for Medical Research, and Robert Webster, Professor of Virology at St Jude's Children's Research Hospital, Memphis. Still, when I did see my father he seemed more up-beat. Until disaster struck.

It happened on that eighth day, that day when my mother was in the tent hacking away at the earth with a pick. Dr Daniels was beside her, shovel in hand. The pit was half a meter deep; they were still in the active layer of permafrost, which meant that the earth was still sloshy, not deep enough to be permanently frozen. Out of the blue, Dr Daniels's spade hit the lid of a box, a coffin. "When I first saw that coffin, I didn't think it was one of our coffins," remembers my father. "I didn't want to think it was the first coffin ... I could see the project vanishing down the tube."

The tent was cleared, a meeting was held. The coffin, it was decided, did not belong to one of the miners. There was no risk of infection; it would be safe to continue digging. No press conference was held: by this time most of the television crews had gone home. But the next day a second coffin was found at the same level, then a third, then a fourth. "There was no talk, no jokes," remembers Rod Daniels. "The only comments were, 'Here is another, here is another, here is another.' Even when we had the seven there was no clear indication that they were our seven. It was only when we found some newspaper in the coffins, dated 1917, that we realised these were probably our men. Up until that point there was always the hope that there would be another seven bodies further down."

One of the coffins had burst. "It was full of grit and sand," says my father. "I thought, my God, what condition are the samples going to be in?" At that point the lids were still on, although a skull had been exposed. "I thought that the most likely scenario would be that we'd have seven coffins with seven skeletons." Dr Daniels was there when the lids of six of the seven coffins were removed (one family had refused the permission). "I thought, 'That's it,'" he remembers. "We are not going to get any samples. We saw skeletons, basically. I couldn't have identified tissues or organs, looking at them. But others did."

The tent was cleared and the pathologists moved in. The sight was pitiful: the seven coal-miners, all young men, had been buried naked, wrapped in nothing but newspaper. There were no personal items, no pieces of clothing; little care had been taken in arranging the bodies. Only one had his hands crossed over his crotch. The rest lay with their hands by their sides. All were submerged in water and coated with a fine, clay-like substance. The coffins were packed tightly into the grave. "I thought they would be more separate," says my father. "But there wasn't an inch between each coffin."

Barry Blenkinsop, an assistant pathologist from the Chief Coroner's office in Ontario, Canada, conducted the autopsies. His colleague, Charles Smith, took tooth samples from each of the six men. With the tenderness of a father, Blenkinsop lay beside each of the six bodies on a platform of wood planks, and using three tools - a scalpel, a knife and a pair of forceps - he gently lifted out lumps of organs, carefully removed the layer of silt, then placed them reverently in the sample jars. He also took samples of bone marrow, hair ("blond" through loss of pigment), and small artefacts such as bits of newspaper or rope.

That evening there was a banquet. The mood was celebratory; it had been decided at a meeting just before dinner that the digging would continue. The radar reading showed ground disturbance two meters deep; the chances of there being more bodies down below were good. "That was the high point. We had samples from six bodies, we had decided to press on and maybe find another seven bodies," says my father. "I thought, 'This project cannot fail!' But the very next day all that was plunged downwards, with the collapse of the pit walls. Unbeknown to us, while we were congratulating ourselves on getting the samples, water had been creeping into the pit. Almost overnight it started to disintegrate."

The next morning a press conference was held at the graveyard. The few remaining journalists were told to rejoice: "The team is very, very pleased," said Kirsty Duncan. "The team is thrilled and delighted to have found soft tissue samples." I left the site with my father and together we climbed up a mountain and crossed on to the Longyearbyen glacier. It was the first time we'd spent the day alone for 10 years. With a guide, a rifle (for the polar bears) ropes, crampons and a pickaxe, we crunched through a world of white snow, and white fog so dense that sky and land became interchangeable. We could have been falling through air.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped off at the graveyard. To my surprise the scientists had abandoned the site. Only the gravediggers remained. "We're filling up the hole," said one. "Why?" I asked. "The pit is collapsing," was the cheerful reply. It was the collapse of a dream for my dad.

TWO DAYS LATER I had breakfast with him. Fresh bread, seal, herring. We only had an hour or so: he wanted to nip up and see the vicar; he also had a plane to catch. "I don't think the project has slipped up," he said, in reply to my question. "That is a premature analysis of the project. But I have to say that the quality of the samples are not as good as I would have wished.

"What may save this project are the samples of brain. If we can isolate 'flu RNA from the brain, then there is a good chance that we'll have identified the 'mystery organism' which prompted the outbreak of Encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s: the influenza virus. If that link is made, those findings could rocket this study up into the stratosphere in terms of importance."

Mistakes had been made, he admitted, but the Ground Penetrating Radar reading was not one of them. "At its most basic the GPR reading told us that whoever prepared that grave in 1918 had prepared a deep hole - probably with the help of some dynamite to break up the permafrost. We all assumed that since the gravediggers back in 1918 had taken the trouble to loosen the soil two meters down, then they would also have taken the trouble to remove all the soil from the hole - to make way for the bodies. Perhaps we guessed wrong", said my father.

"If I have any criticism to make of the way this project has been handled, I would say that too much time has been spent talking about feelings and photo-opportunities and other people's wishes and grievances, and not enough time has been spent talking about science and the dynamics of the operation. Instead of wasting meetings worrying about local dignitaries, we should have been discussing the pit. Why did we go on digging without shoring up the sides? Why didn't we think of the possibility of the pit collapsing? We knew there was lots of water around because the temperatures were warm. Why weren't we looking at that on an hour-to-hour basis?

"We are the virologists. We know what kind of samples we want. We should have been bashing people on the back of the head, saying: 'Look! This is not good enough! We don't want bits of decayed tissue! We want frozen tissue! That is what we are here for!' We should have pressed on faster to find out what could have been down below."

I learnt later that my father had fought passionately for the project to continue. On the day the digging stopped there had been a "post-mortem" of the afternoon's events. The question of whether it was possible to enlarge the project by drilling or doing selective digging was raised. The feeling was "half-hearted", even neutral, remembers my father. Then a vote was taken: to close or not to close the project? The team, with the exception of the three virologists and one of the two grave-diggers present voted to shut-down the site. "That was the lowest point for me," said my father, looking at his tea-cup, his Russian hat by his side. "I couldn't understand how happy half the team seemed to be that the project was finished. They looked like the cat that had found the milk. I couldn't understand it. I still can't understand it. To my mind, just by chance, something had slipped from our grasp."

A short time later, my dad climbed on board the airport bus, Russian hat back on his head, suitcase in hand. He was off to Frankfurt to give a lecture. My mother had left days before. I waved him off until he was out of sight and then went for a walk.

I thought about Kirsty Duncan. Yes, she had done an excellent job of locating the bodies and building relations with the community in Longyearbyen. But was a geographer the best person to handle a team of awkward scientists? "I did not undertake this project for attention," she had assured me, nine days before. "I undertook this project because I was horrified about the virus." Walking up that long road to the graveyard I had no doubt that she cared about "making better anti-viral drugs" as she puts it. But did she have to come bounding into the bar, minutes after the post-mortem closure-meeting, with a smiling, flushed face? "I don't know why the press keep asking me if I am disappointed with the samples. I am not disappointed! I feel ecstatic!"she'd said, kneeling beside me. The journalists around looked on with amusement at the latest piece of spin-doctoring. I felt myself recoiling.

Instinctively I found myself heading back to the graveyard. All was silent. Shovels leant against the fence, useless, finished with. The door to the containment tent was tightly sealed. I looked at the rows of white crosses still standing. Some were wreathed in flowers, most were bare. All stood defiantly, facing the valley, guarding the secrets buried beneath. Now, I thought, we would never know. Once again, calm breathed through the mosses.

! How recovered DNA is rewriting history is explored in the science section on page 76

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in