Page last updated at 01:46 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 02:46 UK

Body exhumed in fight against flu

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Sir Mark Sykes died nearly 90 years ago

The body of an aristocrat who died nearly 90 years ago has been exhumed in the hope that it will help scientists combat a future flu pandemic.

Yorkshire landowner Sir Mark Sykes died in France in 1919 from Spanish flu.

Sir Mark was buried in a lead coffin which scientists hope may have helped preserve the virus.

They believe his remains will help piece together the DNA of Spanish flu, which could have a similar genetic structure to modern bird flu.

This knowledge, added to major breakthroughs by American scientists last year, could help prevent a modern pandemic through the development of new drugs.

A church court covering the Diocese of York has authorised the exhumation of the body of Sir Mark, who owned historic Sledmere House near Driffield, after permission was given by his grandchildren.

His body will have to be examined in a special air-tight laboratory to avoid any risk of contamination.

Death toll

Researchers from BBC One's Inside Out programme have tracked down contemporary records of Sir Mark's funeral at St Mary's Church, Sledmere, and other archive documents to help a medical team from St Barts and the Royal London Hospitals.

Sir Mark died towards the end of the Spanish flu outbreak which killed more than 50 million people when it took hold at the end of World War I. The death toll was compounded by large population movements during the war.

Sir Mark, who was also a politician tipped as a future prime minister and a diplomat, was working for the government in the Middle East where he helped draw up the national boundaries that still exist in the region today.

He sailed home from Syria via London, where it is thought he contracted the virus, and died on 16 February at the Hotel Lotti during peace negotiations in Paris.

BBC One viewers in Yorkshire can see more on the story on Inside Out on Wednesday at 1930 BST


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