Public Release: 

Marmots, microbes and geopolitical uses of disease

University of Alaska Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS, Alaska --As Alaskans prepare for a potential avian influenza pandemic the story of how marmots and microbes led to the Japanese takeover of Manchuria will provide an unsettling look at what happens when plague and politics combine with a lack of communication.

William Summers, a medical doctor and professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, will present "Marmots, Microbes and Mandarins: The Geopolitical Uses of the Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911" Friday, April 28 from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Elvey Auditorium on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The free seminar, hosted by the Alaska Branch of the American Society for Microbiology, is part of the Institute of Arctic Biology Life Sciences Seminar Series and is sponsored by the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology.

In the early 1900s railroads brought people from south China to Manchuria, a region of northeast China, newly opened to marmot hunting. "Local hunters knew how to recognize sick marmots and knew to leave them alone," Summers said. "The new, migrant hunters didn't know local lore and spread disease from sick marmots to themselves. The railroad made the rapid spread of sick people possible."

By the spring of 1911 a major epidemic of pneumonic plague swept through Manchuria killing between 45,000 and 60,000 people. "The disease was a pretext for military interaction. The plague and its aftermath were to play an important role in the geopolitical events leading up to the Japanese takeover of Manchuria and in the complex causes of World War II," Summers said. "One can better understand different cultures by the ways they respond to, and deal with, epidemic diseases," Summers said.

Summers will present a second Waksman Foundation seminar, "Phage, Physics and DNA," and Jonathan Runstadler, IAB assistant professor, will present "Avian Influenza: The Buzz, the Bugs, and the Birds" on Saturday, April 29, as part of the Alaska Branch of the American Society for Microbiology 22nd Annual Meeting.

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CONTACT: Richard Boone, associate professor, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 907.474.7682,

Marie Gilbert, Publications and Information Coordinator, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 907.474.7412,

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