Duncan, Christopher J. 1932–2005

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Duncan, Christopher J. 1932–2005

(C.J. Duncan, Christopher Duncan, Christopher John Duncan)

PERSONAL: Born February 23, 1932, in Croydon, Surrey, England; died July 21, 2005; son of Jack William and Muriel Agnes (Kirlew) Duncan; married Jennifer Jane Powell, September 6, 1958; children: Stephen Richard, James Michael, Alastair John. Education: Queen Mary College, London, B.Sc., 1953, Ph.D., 1956. Hobbies and other interests: Sailing, reading, gardening, watercolor painting, genealogy.

CAREER: British Civil Service, Cambridge, England, research fellow, 1956–58; University of Liverpool, Liverpool, England, lecturer in zoology, 1958–64; University of Durham, Durham, England, reader in animal physiology, 1964–70; University of Liverpool, professor, 1970–99, professor emeritus, beginning 1999. Governor, Liverpool Polytechnic, 1985–89; Institute of Biology, fellow, and chair of council, 1982, and member of council and chair of northwest group; Science and Engineering Research Council, member, 1992–94.

MEMBER: Royal Society of Arts (fellow), Society for Experimental Biology (council member, 1987–91), Zoological Society of London (scientific fellow).

AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary LL.D. and M.D., both Boston College, both 1962.


(As C.J. Duncan) The Molecular Properties and Evolution of Excitable Cells, Pergamon Press (New York, NY), 1967.

(Editor, as C.J. Duncan) Calcium in Biological Systems, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1976.

(Editor, as C.J. Duncan, with C.R. Hopkins) Secretory Mechanisms, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1979.

(Editor, as C.J. Duncan) Calcium, Oxygen Radicals, and Cellular Damage, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1991.

(With Susan Scott) Human Demography and Disease, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(With Susan Scott) Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

(With Susan Scott) Demography and Nutrition: Evidence from Historical and Contemporary Populations, Blackwell Science (Malden, MA), 2002.

(As Christopher Duncan, with Susan Scott) Return of the Black Death: The World's Greatest Serial Killer, Wiley (Hoboken, NJ), 2004.

Contributor of articles to professional journals. Editor, Malacologia, beginning 1961; editor, SEB Symposia, 1972–77.

SIDELIGHTS: The late Christopher J. Duncan was a retired zoology professor whose interest in genealogy, demographics, and virology led to his formation of a groundbreaking theory concerning the Black Death, the plague that wiped out about one-third of Europe's population in a series of outbreaks. In his cowritten works Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations and Return of the Black Death: The World's Greatest Serial Killer Duncan and collaborator Susan Scott drew on records of the time and a knowledge of viruses to propose that the Black Death was not actually caused by bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis). Scientists have accepted the bubonic plague theory since Alexander Yersin first proposed it in 1894, but Duncan and Scott conclude that the plague was the result of a type of hemorrhagic fever caused by a filovirus similar to the Ebola virus currently sweeping through Africa. Their reasoning includes the argument that rats, who were blamed for passing infected fleas to people, could not have spread the plague as fast as it actually traveled through Europe; also, fleas and rats would have been dormant or inactive during cold winter months. The Black Death, however, spread very quickly in both cold and warm weather. Furthermore, Duncan and Scott maintain that the symptoms suffered by victims that were recorded at the time, including large lumps on the body, are not fully consistent with bubonic plague.

"As far as I am concerned," wrote Lorena Madrigal in a Human Biology review of Biology of Plagues, "this book clearly establishes that the terrible hemorrhagic plagues from 1300 to the 1660s were not caused by Yersinia pestis." Madrigal also noted that "a really intriguing part of their book" is the suggestion that the European populations developed immunity to the plague that has resulted in about ten percent of the population becoming resistant to HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. Some critics who examined Duncan and Scott's theories, however, doubted the certainty of their conclusions. For example, in a Lancet review of Biology of Plagues, contributor Richard W. Titball felt that airborne transmission of the disease could be possible in the case of a pneumonic plague, despite the authors' assertion of the opposite. Titball felt that "a mixture of pneumonic and bubonic disease explains the pattern of spread of Y pestis during this period." Nevertheless, Titball concluded that the work "is a fascinating read for those interested in the history of infectious disease and it is provocative and thought provoking." Reviewer T.M. Pollard stated in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute that "the thread of the authors' argument is not always clear through the main body of the book," and that their conclusion is not fully justified. However, Pollard called Biology of Plagues "an impressive study." Despite some possible flaws in the book, critics have held that Duncan and Scott's work is very important as the first to use detailed mathematical models and studies of nutrition and disease in a demographic study.

Two earlier collaborations between Duncan and Scott, Human Demography and Disease and Demography and Nutrition: Evidence from Historical and Contemporary Populations, examine historical records to try to explain how factors such as disease and nutrition affected populations in Europe throughout history. The former title, according to Maureen Duggan in Chemistry and Industry, reveals "how historical links between poverty, malnutrition and disease may be elucidated using information from parish registers of baptism, marriage and death, Bills of Mortality, and historical records of temperature and commodity prices." In Demography and Nutrition, reported Richard H. Steckel in Population and Development Review, the authors posit as their main thesis "the central role of diet in demographic change from hunter-gatherer times to the present."



American Anthropologist, March, 2001, Judith Littleton, review of Human Demography and Disease, p. 272.

Chemistry and Industry, January 10, 2000, Maureen Duggan, "Parish Record and Population History," review of Human Demography and Disease, p. 29.

Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2001, Lila Guterman, "Two Biologists Explain Why Bubonic Plague Was Not Source of Black Death," p. A12.

Current Health 2, September, 2004, "Plagued with Doubt," p. 2.

Current Science, October 11, 2002, Emma Davy, "Bubonic Blunder?," p. 6.

Human Biology, October, 2002, Lorena Madrigal, review of Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations, p. 731.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March, 2002, T.M. Pollard, review of Biology of Plagues, p. 166.

Lancet, June 23, 2001, Richard W. Titball, "Yersinia pestis: A Case of Mistaken Identity?," review of Biology of Plagues, p. 2061.

New Scientist, July 17, 2004, Christi Donnelly, "New Light on the Black Death," review of Return of the Black Death: The World's Greatest Serial Killer, p. 46.

Population and Development Review, September, 2003, Richard H. Steckel, review of Demography and Nutrition: Evidence from Historical and Contemporary Populations, p. 523.

Quarterly Review of Biology, June, 1999, Francis L. Black, review of Human Demography and Disease, p. 254; March, 2002, Matt Keeling, review of Biology of Plagues, p. 49.



Times (London, England), August 31, 2005, p. 47.

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