A century ago today, Sergeant-Major Robert Gordon Torrance was probably the first New Zealander to die from influenza in the great pandemic that swept around the globe in 1918 and 1919.

Aged 25, Torrance, of Dunedin, died in a military hospital at Rouen in France during World War I. He was buried at St Sever Cemetery Extension in Rouen.

By painstaking analysis of archival records, researchers from Otago University at Wellington pinpointed Torrance as the first of about 9000 New Zealanders - including more than 900 in the military - to die from the virus.

"He officially 'died of pneumonia' on 28 August 1918 according to his record in the Cenotaph database," Dr Jennifer Summers and Professors Nick Wilson and Michael Baker say in their Public Health Expert blog published today.

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They say it is likely Torrance's death was influenza-related as in the pandemic period a large majority of the deaths from sickness in the New Zealand military were due to the newly emerged virus. Death was either directly from the virus or more commonly from secondary infection with bacterial pneumonia.

A comparatively mild influenza pandemic - a widespread epidemic - had begun in the US state of Kansas in early 1918 and circled the globe within months. A far more deadly second wave began in the trenches of the Western Front in July.

The disease quickly spread to civilians, and eventually killed more than 50 million people worldwide.

The 1918-19 pandemic remains the worst known natural disaster to kill New Zealanders. The second wave virus appeared first in Auckland and the infection spread out along railway and coastal shipping routes. The peak of the disaster was from late October to early December 1918.

The Māori death rate was seven times that of the Pākehā population. Soldiers were at higher risk of death than civilians because of higher numbers being in the most susceptible demographic group - males in their 30s or late 20s - and they were concentrated in camps and barracks where infection could spread rapidly.

By age, the highest death rate in civilians was among men aged 28 - 143 deaths per 10,000. No one has been able to explain why people in the prime of life were at the highest risk; some, including Wilson, Summers and Baker have argued it could be linked to a dysfunctional infant immune system response to infection with influenza in an 1889-92 pandemic.

Before the war, Torrance was a tinsmith at the Shacklock foundry and a keen sportsman. He was single, 1.7m tall and weighed 63.5kg when he joined the military in early 1916. His father had died before the war and Robert listed his mother as his next of kin.

He had risen rapidly through the military ranks. Before he fell ill with probable influenza, he was booked to go to England for commissioned-officer training. In reporting his death, Dunedin's Evening Star noted that three of his brothers remained on active service - one was in France, and two were in England recovering from wounds.

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The 1918 influenza pandemic memorial at Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland. Photo / Martin Johnston
The 1918 influenza pandemic memorial at Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland. Photo / Martin Johnston

The Wellington researchers say the high Maori death rate from influenza during the pandemic probably reflected higher rates of poverty, overcrowding and diseases such as tuberculosis.

Well-organised nursing and basic support in Christchurch may have lowered that city's death rate but there were few successful control measures although the town of Coromandel imposed travel restrictions.

Several influenza pandemics occurred last century and the researchers say more can be expected. To minimise the impact, they urge more work be done to reduce poverty and household crowding, prevent chronic diseases, and strengthen the Health Ministry's public health capacity.

They also suggest focusing on New Zealand's memorials to the 1918-19 pandemic - such as the one at Waikumete Cemetery in West Auckland and the new, large mural in the South Island town of Waimate depicting Dr Margaret Cruickshank, who died of influenza in the pandemic - to educate the public about the threat of the disease.