(CNN)In 1911, a deadly epidemic spread through China and threatened to become a pandemic. Its origins appeared to be related to the trade in wild animals, but at the time no one was sure.
In 1911, another epidemic swept through China. That time, the world came together
Lockdowns, quarantine measures, the wearing of masks, travel restrictions, the mass cremation of victims, and border controls were deployed to try to lower the infection rate. Yet more than 60,000 people died in modern-day northeast China, making it one of the world's largest epidemics at the time.
When the disease was eventually brought under control, the Chinese government convened the International Plague Conference in the northern city of Shenyang -- close to the epicenter of the outbreak.
In attendance were virologists, bacteriologists, epidemiologists and disease experts from many of the world's major powers -- the United States, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and France.
The purpose of the conference was to find the cause of the outbreak, learn which suppression techniques were most effective, discover why the disease had spread so far so fast, and assess what could be done to prevent a second wave. While the conference was not without some finger pointing, it was mostly a genuine attempt to learn.
As the world now faces a pandemic characterized by a lack of a globally co-ordinated response and multilateral effort on the part of political leaders, the collaborative aspects of the 1911 conference in north-eastern China are worth reconsidering.
Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) appears compromised, the virus has been racialized, major nations are angry with each other and competing for resources and control of the narrative, while poorer countries are left to fend largely for themselves.
Compared to 1911, we appear a polarized and divided world.
The Great Manchurian Plague that broke out across northeastern China in 1910 was devastating.
From the autumn of 1910, until the outbreak was finally suppressed the following year, an estimated 63,000 people died. The epidemic hit international headlines when it reached the northeastern city of Harbin, in today's Heilongjiang province. Harbin was then part of what was known as Manchuria, a vast, agriculturally important but sparsely populated region situated on the juncture of the Chinese, Japanese and Russian spheres of influence. The majority of the territory was Chinese-governed, with Japan controlling the port area around Dalian and Russia running Manchuria's railways.
Harbin was an international city, home to many Russians who worked for the China Eastern Railway (CER), which connected the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Japanese-controled port city of Dalian. The city was also home to large communities of Japanese, Americans and Europeans engaged in trades connected to the railway.
That included the fur trade, and it was from this industry that the disease most likely came.
The Tarbagan marmot was a species of rodent that lived mostly on the grasslands and steppe of Mongolia and neighboring Manchuria. European, American and Japanese furriers had long purchased sable, mink and otter furs from local hunters, but had never been interested in the coarse fur of the Tarbagan marmot. But new dying techniques at the start of the century allowed marmot fur to pass as an affordable alternative for better-quality furs.
Thousands of nomadic local hunters were tasked by foreign buyers with bringing marmot hides, which soared in value in the years before the virus. Rural hunters had long avoided using diseased marmots for food, but did not think to cast aside the hides of sick animals -- especially not when they were worth so much.
Pinpointing the initial outbreak of the plague is hard, but it was first officially noted by Russian doctors in Manzhouli, an Inner Mongolian town on the Chinese-Russian border, which had grown up around the CER. The symptoms were alarming -- fever followed by haemoptysis (the coughing up of blood). In Manzhouli, the dead were left in the street and railway freight cars were turned into quarantine wards.