updated 2/28/2007 5:45:31 PM ET 2007-02-28T22:45:31

Scientists want to exhume the body of a British diplomat who died of Spanish flu during the 1919 pandemic in hopes of discovering clues to fight a possible future global outbreak sparked by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.

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Sir Mark Sykes, best known for his work dismantling the Ottoman Empire, was buried in a lead-lined coffin, which may have preserved enough human tissue to yield useful information on how he died and the nature of the avian flu that killed him.

“We’re after an intact body,” said John Oxford, a professor of virology at Queen Mary’s College. “Sometimes people who have been buried in lead are very well preserved. If we obtain (the body), then we can ask a lot of important questions about the way that Sir Mark died.”

Understanding more about the Spanish flu might help scientists design better treatments for H5N1. Victims of Spanish flu frequently experienced an overly aggressive immune response, which began to attack their own bodies. The same phenomenon has been seen in human H5N1 cases.

“The first thing we’ll be looking at is the pathology of the lung — whether he was overwhelmed by his own immune response,” Oxford said.

Spanish flu victims have been studied before — including Inuit bodies recovered from the Arctic permafrost and corpses of World War I soldiers. Experts estimate the Spanish flu killed more than 40 million people worldwide.

Oxford said it was extremely difficult to locate flu victims who were buried in lead-lined coffins, in part because few records were kept about coffins. In addition, it can be difficult to find the descendants of victims.

Famous flu victim
However, Sykes was a famous victim because of his diplomatic status, and his coffin was photographed before he was interred.

Although permission has been obtained from Sykes’ family, Oxford said he still needs permission from Britain’s health and safety body. He said it would not be known how well Sykes’ body was preserved until his coffin was opened. Slideshow: Bird flu’s deadly march

“These are all expectations and hopes that can be easily dashed,” he said.

An aristocratic, well-traveled and talented linguist, Sykes was chosen to draw up the British half of a secret agreement to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into French and British spheres of influence, drawing lines which would eventually coalesce into the borders of Iraq, Syria and Israel.

Sykes later returned to the Middle East to try to secure an understanding among French, British and Arab officials there, a marathon effort which taxed his endurance, Sykes’ biographer Roger Adelson said.

“He’d spent weeks burning the midnight oil trying to get these factions to agree, but he didn’t succeed,” Adelson said, adding that Sykes had lost weight, “so he was very vulnerable.”

Sykes traveled to Paris in early 1919, and he died soon afterward.

Although he was a Roman Catholic, Sykes was buried in a Church of England graveyard at St. Mary Sledmere church, near his ancestral home about 200 miles north of London.

The Church of England has granted permission to unearth the corpse, ruling that the possible benefit — and the family’s approval — outweighed the church’s strong preference for leaving human remains undisturbed.

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