Doc hero of Spanish flu

Reporter: Janice Barker
Date published: 05 August 2009

The life of a forgotten Oldham public health officer whose work echoes the present flu pandemic, is celebrated on TV tonight.

Dr James Niven was Oldham’s Medical Officer of Health from 1886 to 1894, when he moved to Manchester.

And it was his farsighted advice and actions which prevented the city adding to the huge death toll when Spanish flu struck the world in 1918.

James Niven, played in tonight’s BBC Four drama “Forgotten Fallen” by actor Bill Paterson, told Manchester businesses and schools to close to stop people passing on the flu, which killed because it developed into pneumonia within hours.

His advice was unheard of at a time when industrial production was returning to its height at the end of the 1914-18 war, people were celebrating and trying to get their lives back to normal, and many were mourning the millions who died in the trenches.

Bill Paterson called him “a huge hero” for his work.

But it was largely forgotten — as was the pandemic, despite an estimated 70 million people dying from the sickness worldwide.

He is credited for trying to restrict the impact of the disease on Manchester. His saying was “Spit kills.”

He remained Manchester’s Medical Officer of Health for 28 years, until he retired.

During his time in Oldham he hd fought to have tuberculosis classed as a notifiable disease — though it was over 20 years before that happened.

Doctors and physicians in Oldham raised enough money to send Dr Niven to Berlin to study with Dr Robert Koch, who had discovered the TB bacillus in 1882, proving that the disease was not caused by “bad air” as was generally believed.

He also used Dr Koch’s treatment at the Oldham Royal Infirmary on his return, as well as dealing with smallpox, typhus, measles, scarlet fever and whopping cough.

A Chronicle obituary of 1925 said: “Dr Niven also showed an interest in child welfare well in advance of his time.”

The Chronicle also recorded: “During his long term of office in Manchester, Dr Niven inaugurated and carried through many important sanitary reforms, including improvements to the city’s milk supply.

“In matters of public health his advice was constantly sought by the Local Government Board and the Ministry of Health.”