Responding to moments of crisis and need throughout history

Wed, 01 Apr 2020 13:56:00 BST

Throughout its history, the University has used its expertise, knowledge and community of staff, students and alumni to respond to moments of crisis and need.

One example is the work of Dr James Niven, a lecturer in public health at the University whose knowledge and expertise guided Manchester’s response to the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ - the global influenza pandemic that emerged at the end of the First World War and killed an estimated 50 million people.

A public health professional with degrees in maths and medicine, Niven moved to Manchester in 1880, where his work on tuberculosis and infectious diseases earned him a reputation as an innovator in sanitation, health-visiting and infant welfare. Shortly after his appointment as Manchester’s Medical Officer of Health in 1894, he began lecturing at the University, sharing his expertise in public health with students. Niven also worked closely with the University’s pioneering ‘public health laboratory’ to improve Manchester’s disease-ridden milk and water supplies.

When the global ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic hit in 1918, Niven’s decisive, statistically-driven action saved many lives. In contrast to central government advice, he ordered the closure of Manchester’s schools, factories, cinemas and other crowded spaces. Thousands of leaflets were distributed, instructing those with symptoms to ‘self-quarantine’ for 14 days.

Informed by his knowledge and expertise, Niven’s actions challenged the prevailing ideas of the time, slowing the spread of the disease and significantly reducing mortality rates across the city. His courage and leadership in support of a community in crisis drew widespread admiration, and he continued to share his knowledge of public health throughout his life.