James Niven

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James Niven
James Niven.jpg
Medical Officer of Health for Oldham
In office
Medical Officer of Health for Manchester
In office
Personal details
Born (1851-08-12)12 August 1851
Peterhead, Scotland
Died 30 September 1925(1925-09-30) (aged 74)
Douglas, Isle of Man
Alma mater University of Aberdeen
Queens' College, Cambridge
Profession Physician

James Niven (12 August 1851 – 30 September 1925) was a Scottish physician most famous for his work during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 as Manchester's Medical Officer of Health.[1] He held the position for 28 years (1894–1922), until he retired. He held the degrees of M.A., M.B. and LL.D. He had been Oldham's Medical Officer of Health from 1886 to 1894. He lectured in Hygiene at Owens College, Manchester. In 1925 he committed suicide.[2]


He was born in Peterhead on 12 August 1851. He graduated with an MA from the University of Aberdeen in 1870 and continued his studies at Queens' College, Cambridge, gaining his BA in 1874 as 8th Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos and becoming a fellow at Queens'.[3] He trained at St Thomas' Hospital, finally becoming a qualified medical practitioner in 1899.

Medical Officer of Health for Oldham[edit]

During his time in Oldham he had campaigned 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, thereby proving that the disease was not caused by "bad air" as was generally believed. He also used Dr Koch's treatment at the Oldham General Infirmary on his return, as well as dealing with smallpox, typhus, measles, scarlet fever and whooping cough. An Oldham Chronicle obituary of 1925 said: "Dr Niven also showed an interest in child welfare well in advance of his time."

Medical Officer of Health for Manchester[edit]

Dr Niven moved to his new post in 1894 and remained holder until his retirement in 1922. On his initiative tuberculosis became a voluntary notifiable disease in the city in 1899.[4][5]

During Spanish Flu, 1918[edit]

Spanish Flu was a pandemic that spread to Britain towards the end of World War I and Niven's position as Manchester's Medical Officer of Health made it his responsibility to coordinate the city's response. James Niven told Manchester businesses and schools to close to stop people passing on the flu, which killed quickly 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 has called him "a huge hero" for his work.[citation needed] But it was largely forgotten—as was the pandemic, despite an estimated 70 million people dying from the sickness worldwide.[6] He is credited for trying to restrict the impact of the disease on Manchester; being probably the first Medical Officer of Health to enforce preventive measures to stop the spread of disease.[7] His saying was "Spit kills" and it was his far-sighted advice and actions which prevented the city suffering a higher death toll from that pandemic.

Television programme[edit]

A dramatisation of the Spanish flu period in Manchester was transmitted on BBC television as Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen on 5 August 2009 and again on 25 September 2012.[8]

Life and legacy[edit]

He published Observations on the History of Public Health Effort in Manchester (Manchester City Council, 1923). Following Dr Niven's retirement in 1922 he suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1925 on the Isle of Man. On his death he left behind three daughters.

Throughout his life he received notable recognition for his pioneering work in Public Health. This included an honorary degree (LL.D) from the University of Aberdeen, the presidency of the Section of Epidemiology at the Royal Society of Medicine and the Section of Public Health at the Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association in Manchester in 1902.

Further reading[edit]

  • Obituary, British Medical Journal, 10 October 1925
  • An article in: Elwood, Willis J. & Tuxford, Félicité, eds. (1984) Some Manchester Doctors: a biographical collection to mark the 150th anniversary of the Manchester Medical Society 1834–1984. Manchester: Univ. Press


  1. ^ Doc hero of Spanish Flu, Oldham Chronicle.
  2. ^ Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen
  3. ^ "Niven, James (NVN870J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. ^ Observations on the History of Public Health Effort in Manchester by James Niven (1923). gtj.org.uk
  5. ^ "Tuberculosis" in: The Book of Manchester and Salford, British Medical Association, George Falkner & Sons, Manchester, 1929, pp. 188–90
  6. ^ Many other estimates exist but can never be verified because of the low standard of death records in many countries.
  7. ^ Anne Hardy, The epidemic streets: infectious disease and the rise of preventive medicine, 1856–1900 (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 255
  8. ^ Spanish flu drama, BBC, 24 September 2012