One hundred and two years ago the region was fighting a deadly pandemic and as today, there were heroes.

Today we tell the story of one of them James Niven

The Scottish norm physician was the City’s medical officer during the outbreak and his actions in 1918 almost certainly saved the lives of maybe thousands in the area.

Niven recognised earlier on the nature of this pandemic and how it could easily be spread through the City’s crowded streets, and told Manchester businesses and schools to close to stop people passing on the flu, which killed because it developed into pneumonia within hours.

His saying was said to be “spit kills”

This was one piece of his advice

So far as one can judge at present, in checking further outbreaks, it will be necessary to rely chiefly on general preventative measures. The measures alluded to include the maintenance of a reasonable distance between the sick and the healthy, care of the hands, avoidance of common towels and common soap, careful washing out of common basins, avoidance of the handling in common of food to be afterwards cooked, and other like precautions; above all, the immediate segregation of persons attacked.

Niven was Manchester’s longest serving medical officer from 1894 to 1922.

Born in Scotland in 1851, he graduated in Arts at Aberdeen University before studying mathematics at Cambridge and later medicine, graduating in 1880.

His first appointment was with the Metropolitan Asylum’s Board in London, specialising in infectious diseases.

He soon came to Manchester and entered private practice before in 1886 being appointed Medical Officer for Oldham where he was instrumental in improving living conditions.

Returned to Manchester in 1894 as Chief Medical officer, he was responsible for many of the pioneering medical projects in the city including major improvements of public health in Manchester,slum clearance, milk supply, showing that milk and other dairy products often contained virulent tubercule bacteria, the setting up of Monsall’s  Fever Hospital, recognising the problems of smoke pollution and initiating a system of health visiting.

During his twenty eight years overseeing Manchester’s public health, the death rate in the City declined from 24.2 to 13.8 per thousand

Tragically Niven committed suicide just three years after he left his post in Manchester, his body recovered from the sea off the coast of Douglas on the Isle of Man, where he had been giving lectures on public health matters.




  1. Great article, thanks Nigel. There’s a great docu-drama about Dr Niven and his efforts to halt the spread of Spanish Flu. It’s called “The Forgotten Fallen” and was made by the BBC more than 10 years ago. I have sent tweets to the BBC themselves as well as to a few others who might be interested/who may have some clout.

  2. If you search “the forgotten fallen” on BBC iPlayer, you’ll be able to watch the program in full. You could also watch “the flu that killed 50 million” in which James Niven has a major part


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