New York Times science writer discusses history of influenza

Emma North
Contributing Writer

Gina Kolata, a science writer for The New York Times, visited VCU Oct. 17 to give a lecture as part of the Sanger Series — a line-up of guest speakers by VCU Libraries and the VCU Office of Research and Innovation.

Kolata — an award-winning journalist and science writer — presented “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918” at the James Branch Cabell Library. University students and faculty, high school students and local community members attended her discussion during the 100-year anniversary of the deadly outbreak.

“It was an epidemic that reaped devastation, it’s really hard to imagine,” Kolata said. “If a similar epidemic happened today it would kill more people in a single year than all the [medical] major killers combined.”

Gina Kolata (center) visited Prof. Alix Bryan’s journalism class to hear story pitches before her presentation.

Kolata originally studied science and received her master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Maryland, College Park. In 1973, she became a journalist and started working for The New York Times in 1987.

“I don’t mind sharing with you that I’m an unabashed fan of Ms. Kolata and have been literally for decades,” said Dr. Michael Donnenberg, professor in VCU’s School of Medicine.

Kolata also spoke about her book “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It.” Referring to the horrors of having the flu 100 years ago, Kolata explained how people died after being infected with the disease.

“A blood-tinged saliva would bubble from the victim’s mouth and the person would die by drowning as the lunges filled with red fluid,” she said.

Kolata referred to the story of the pandemic as a “murder mystery.” Her book explains how, after the flu pandemic spread worldwide, scientists Jeff Taubenberger and Johan Hultin found traces of the virus in preserved human remains.

“When they found it, it was fragmented and broken into hundreds of pieces,” Kolata said. “But there is no doubt what they found was the real thing.”

Despite the high global death toll, Kolata said there were only three suitable pieces of human remains infected with the flu for Taubenberger and Hultin to investigate — chunks of lungs from two U.S. soldiers and an obese Alaskan woman, because the permafrost and her body fat preserved her lungs.

The death count was estimated at 50 million, 675,000 of which occurred in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, the virus seemed to disappear with its victims. Following the pandemic, no traceable remains of the particularly deadly strain were apparent.

“We still don’t know why one particular strand of flu could be more deadly than any other,” Kolata said.

Event and Programs Coordinator for VCU Libraries Gregory Kimbrell said it is baffling to think that such a widespread disease could simply go away.

“It just disappeared into history,” said Kimbrell, who helped plan the Sanger Series event. “We talk about all these other diseases and disasters [nowadays] that I guess are more glamorous.”

In addition to speaking at the library, Kolata attended a VCU mass communications class before her lecture. In class, she listened to student story pitches and provided feedback, encouraging them to make sure all stories are sending an important message.

“I write for myself,” Kolata said. “If it fascinates me, I should make it fascinating to [readers], too.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply