Public Release: 

1918 human influenza epidemic no longer linked to birds

Smithsonian co-authors research paper in the Journal of Virology

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History historic bird collections was critical in determining that the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide did not originate from birds, as previously thought. Wild waterfowl collected between 1915 -1919 were tested for the same hemagglutinin (HA) subtype as that of the 1918 pandemic Influenza A virus. The tests concluded the HA genes were different. This research is reported in the August issue of the Journal of Virology.

A team of scientists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Ohio State University and the Museum of Natural History examined the Smithsonian's collection of liquid-preserved birds. These collections were the source of avian genetic material studied for this research project. The scientific team isolated and sequenced a portion of the HA gene from a bird captured in 1917. Comparisons of this sequence with that of the 1918 pandemic virus suggest that the pandemic viral HA gene was not derived directly from an avian source.

"Animal specimens collected over a long period of time are of tremendous scientific importance," said James Dean, collections manager in the Division of Birds at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. "By utilizing modern technological techniques on these historic specimens, we are solving mysteries about our past." Co-authors on the research paper were Thomas G. Fanning, Ann Reid, Thomas A. Janczewski and Jeffrey K. Taubenberger at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology; and Richard D. Slemons at Ohio State University. The 1918 pandemic influenza resulted when a type A Influenza virus strain emerged with a hemagglutinin subtype to which few people had prior immunity.

At least 20 million, and perhaps more than 40 million, people died from the 1918 influenza virus, the most deadly infectious disease event to affect the human species. Young, healthy adults were affected with unusually high death rates. The disease swept the globe in six months, killing more than 10,000 people per week in some U.S. cities.


The National Bird Collection at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum are maintained as a vital resource of ornithological research. More than 600,000 specimens comprise the National Collection, the third largest bird collection in the world. Hundreds of scientists from around the world visit the Museum's collection each year to conduct research in the biogeography, evolution, systematics, taxonomy, paleontology and ecology of birds. In addition, collections management staff supervise the loaning of 1,500-2,000 specimens each year to institutions worldwide.

The National Museum of Natural History, located at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., welcomed more than 8.4 million people during the year 2001, making it the most visited natural history museum in the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world's most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It also fosters critical scientific research as well as educational programs and exhibitions that present the work of its scientists and curators to the public. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum and research complex. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is open for special summer hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day through Sept. 2. Admission is free.

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