Posted: 13 April, 2024 | Category: Current News Category: Features & Analysis

The grave of Sir Mark Sykes at St Mary’s Churchyard at Sledmere, East Riding (Photo: Trevor Grundy)


Seventeen years ago, scientists believed that lifting the lid from a lead-lined coffin containing the corpse of an English aristocrat could save millions of lives. TREVOR GRUNDY visits St Mary’s Church (Anglican) in Sledmere, East Riding where the body of 39-year old Sir Mark Sykes was buried after his death in Paris in 1919.


Sledmere, East Riding, Yorkshire  – – –  A man in Texas was this month diagnosed with bird flu, an infection tied to the recent discovery of the virus in dairy cows. The un-named patient is being treated with an anti-viral drug and appears to be on the mend.

This is only the second time that a person in America has been diagnosed with a Type A H5N1 virus, one which can cause a range of illnesses from eye infection and upper respiratory illnesses to more severe cases, such as pneumonia.

A spokesperson for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in USA said that while the risk to the general public is low, those people with prolonged and unprotected exposures to infected animals are at a greater risk.

That must be a substantial amount for the earth’s population.

The virus has been found in hundreds of mammal species in recent years.

The bird flu was first identified as a threat to people during the 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong. More than 460 people have died in the last two decades from bird flu infections, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO),

Scientists at Cambridge University are expressing concern that a new pandemic, a bird flu Everest that could make COVID look like Ben Nevis, could sweep our fragile world sooner than later.


So, let us all sit up and take note.

Alarm bells are ringing.

Can anyone in Parliament  hear them – does anyone there want to hear them?


Sir Mark Sykes with the flag of Palestine behind him. 


Eighteen years ago, nearly 90 years after his death in Paris, researchers from Oxford University were given the go-ahead to exhume the body of Sir Mark Sykes, 6th baronet and co-author of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1916 treaty between the United Kingdom and France (with the backing of the Russian and Italian governments) which carved-up the Ottoman Empire into Anglo-French spheres of influence.

The agreement was one of the turning points of history in the Middle East because it reversed and betrayed earlier British promises to Arab leaders that they would, at war’s end, have a national homeland in the area of Greater Syria (including Palestine).

The Sykes-Picot agreement pre-dated the much more famous Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised British support for a Homeland for the Jews in Palestine where, at that time, most of the population were Arabs.

Not for nothing was Palestine known s the Twice Promised Land.

Sir Mark died at the age of 39 in Paris in February 1919 while working for the British government at the Paris Peace Conference.

He was a victim of the ‘Spanish’  flu epidemic which at the end of the First World War claimed anything between 30-50 million lives around the world.

The epidemic, which in its scale and impact rivalled the Black Death of the Middle Ages, was caused by an avian virus, H1N1, which is similar to the current virus H5N1 and came from a bird in France.

Sir Mark’s body was buried in a sealed lead coffin which researchers hoped to produce well-preserved body samples.

John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary’s College, London and a respected scientist at Oxford University, headed the research team.

He said that there were only five useful samples around the world from the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic and none from a body in lead-lined coffin.

He said, “If we can get a fully-preserved body, then that will be a huge step forward.”

To get permission to open the coffin at St Mary’s Churchyard in Sledmere Professor Oxford  contacted Sir Mark’s six grandchildren and senior Church of England officials, all who gave their consent.

Although the ceremony of opening the coffin was widely reported in the British and international media, there wasn’t any kind of clear follow-up message to the general public about the value of the research.

The Independent newspaper said that soon after the coffin was opened, a crack was found at the top of the sealed lead lining meaning that the chance of finding a pristine sample of the virus that killed Sir Mark was remote.

But some of the tissue samples taken from the remains were of value to researchers working on the H1N1 virus.

Frozen in liquid nitrogen, samples were taken to a laboratory for researching defences against future pandemics, something that few politicians took seriously until the fateful year of 2020.

*Ed Glinert, an expert of Yorkshire, comments, “Interestingly, back in 2007, during the bird flu worries, experts warned that the next one was overdue. Sir Liam Donaldson, the government’s chief medical officer, said, ’It will come. It will be real and only if we plan can we reduce its impact.’”

The Waggoners’ Memorial  designed by Sir Mark Sykes to honour the men from his  vast estate in Yorkshire who died in World War One (Picture: Trevor Grundy)

So, dear reader, cup your ear and turn towards the bells.

Subscribe to a quality magazine, or tune into programmes about science on the BBC.

Better still, talk to a scientist who knows what he or she is talking about.

Don’t ring your local MP. You might wake him /her up.


But, whatever happens, I believe that these kick-you-in-the-face words by John Donne (1572-1631) are worth writing down, sticking on the fridge door and remembering forever –

Ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.“



*111 Places in Yorkshire that you shouldn’t miss by Ed Glinert (Photographs by David Taylor)