Autumn 2016
On Being a Woman in Science

Canada’s minister of science Kirsty Duncan wrote about her experiences as a young scientist in Hunting the 1918 Flu


Early in her career, Kirsty Duncan taught meteorology, climate change and medical geography. She became interested in influenza and sleeping sickness, and eventually led a research expedition to the Norwegian arctic in search of the origins of the 1918 flu pandemic. In 2003, she published a book about the experience, Hunting the 1918 Flu, focusing partly on her experience of being a young woman in science.

Excerpt from Hunting the 1918 Flu:

In 1992, I knew nothing about influenza or sleeping sickness: strike one. I was young and had virtually no track record: strike two. I am a woman: strike three. Although I did not know it, I was to find that there are barriers for women in science, particularly for relatively young women. Nevertheless, I felt driven to solve the unanswered puzzles. This is the story of the voyage that followed.

The quest began with my searching for all available information on influenza and sleeping sickness. Medline – a computer search tool for the health sciences – listed thousands of articles on influenza but only a few on encephalitis lethargica, as that disease largely disappeared by the late 1920s, except for a few suspected, isolated cases. I spent weeks at the computer reading abstract after abstract – sometimes hundreds in one day – and then searched the stacked library shelves at the University of Toronto for each important article. This was the beginning of my six-month crash course in virology. I diligently read each article, book, monograph, and commissioned report listed on Medline, afraid to miss any scrap of potentially valuable information. I made detailed notes on the etiology, epidemiology, clinical features, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and control of influenza and encephalitis lethargica. I memorized the dates and details of the outbreaks, the epidemics, and the influenza pandemics of the last five centuries, and I studied the language of a new science. When I completed my review of the current literature, I descended into the lower levels of U of T’s Gerstein Medical Library to examine fading articles and books from the early decades of the 20th century. It was difficult poring over case histories. But after six months of intensive research, I felt ready to approach the experts. I required pathological samples of lung and brain tissue from 1918 and from the 1920s. I phoned leading virologists to ask if tissues existed from victims of either Spanish influenza or encephalitis lethargica. I then asked leading neuropathologists for samples from victims of sleeping sickness. The experts all informed me that no samples existed; nevertheless, archival samples would surface later.

Six months of reading, and I was stuck. I decided to search for bodies, rather than for archival samples.

After two years of searching, I still had nothing. I needed a break. And the break did come – from Scotland. My dear friend Dr. Andrew Kerr called from the University of Edinburgh’s geo­graphy department. Andy told me about his recent trip across a glacier in Spitsbergen; he also mentioned rifles, flares, dried foods, and rigorous disposal methods for human waste. I listened with interest. And then he mentioned permafrost. Permafrost! I became excited. I knew that flu had hit Norway. In fact, more than 7,300 people had died there of Spanish flu, and more than 370,000 were registered as having had the disease. I realized that if people had travelled from Norway to Svalbard, they might have carried influenza with them. And if flu had raged, sleeping sickness perhaps followed. I wrote immediately to the Norse Polar Institute in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, and briefly described my research interests. While I waited for a response to my letter, I immersed myself in the history and geography of Svalbard and its wonderful people. Seven of its dead were to become the focus of my life and of our project.

© University of Toronto Press Inc. 2003. Excerpt adapted and reprinted with permission of the publisher.


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by MARIANA GRINBLAT on September 9th, 2016 @ 8:59 am

I am a woman in science and engineering, as I loved science since I was a little girl and did well in it. More women are now in engineering, which is great. But I think we need to be forceful about our abilities and our desire to succeed, even if there are professors or colleagues — of either sex — who try to tell us that we cannot do it.

Women need to have a great deal of confidence, self esteem, and stay away from the negative people in their life and career. I encourage more women to follow my path.

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