Dr. Johan Hultin dies at 97; His work helped isolate the 1918 flu virus
Dr. Johan V. Hultin, a pathologist whose discovery of victims of the 1918 flu pandemic buried in Alaskan permafrost led to a critical understanding of the virus that caused the outbreak, died Saturday in his home in Walnut Creek, California. He was 97 years old. .
The death was confirmed by his wife, Eileen Barbara Hultin.
Dr Hultin’s discovery was crucial in finding the genetic sequence of the virus, allowing researchers to examine what made it so deadly and how to recognize it if it returned. The virus, which was 25 times deadlier than regular flu viruses, has killed tens of millions and infected 28% of Americans, slashing the average lifespan in the United States by 12 years.
Dr. Hultin’s quest to find the victims of the 1918 flu was sparked in 1950 by an offhand remark during lunch with a University of Iowa microbiologist, William Hale. Dr. Hale mentioned that there was only one way to figure out what caused the 1918 pandemic: find victims buried in the permafrost and isolate the virus from lungs that might still be frozen and preserved.
Dr. Hultin, a medical student in Sweden who was spending six months at university, immediately realized he was uniquely suited to do just that. The previous summer, he and his first wife, Gunvor, had spent weeks assisting a German paleontologist, Otto Geist, with a dig in Alaska. Dr. Geist could help him find villages in permafrost areas that also had good records of deaths from the 1918 flu.
After persuading the university to pay him a $10,000 stipend, Dr. Hultin left for Alaska. It was early June 1951.
Three villages seemed to have what he wanted, but when he got to the first two, the graves of the victims were no longer in the permafrost.
The third village on his list, Brevig Mission, was different. The flu had devastated the village, killing 72 of the 80 Inuit residents. Their bodies were buried in a common grave with a large wooden cross at each end.
When Dr. Hultin arrived and politely explained his mission, the village council agreed to let him dig. Four days later, he saw his first victim.
“She was a little girl, about 6 to 10 years old. She was wearing a dove-grey dress, the one she died in,” he recalled in an interview in the late 1990s. child were braided and tied with bright red ribbons. Dr. Hultin called for help from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the group eventually found four more bodies.
They stopped digging. “We’ve had enough,” Dr. Hultin said.
He removed still-frozen lung tissue from the victims, closed the grave, and flew the tissue back to Iowa, keeping it frozen on dry ice in the cockpit of a small plane.
Back in the lab, Dr. Hultin attempted to grow the virus by injecting the lung tissue into fertilized chicken eggs – the standard method of growing flu viruses. He was caught up in the excitement of his experience, he said, and hadn’t thought of the possible danger of introducing a deadly virus into the world.
“I remember sleepless nights,” he says. “I was looking forward to the morning coming to load into my lab and look at the eggs.”
But the virus was not spreading.
He tried injecting lung tissue into the nostrils of guinea pigs, white mice and ferrets, but again failed to revive the virus.
“The virus was dead,” he said.
Dr. Hultin never published his results but bided his time, working as a pathologist in private practice in San Francisco and hoping for another opportunity to resuscitate this virus.
His luck came in 1997 when, sitting by a pool on vacation with his wife in Costa Rica, he noticed a article published in Science by Dr. Jeffery K. Taubenberger, now chief of the section of viral pathogenesis and evolution at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
He reports a remarkable discovery. Dr. Taubenberger had searched a federal pathology specimen repository dating back to the 1860s and found fragments of the 1918 virus in lung tissue extracts from two soldiers who died in that pandemic. The tissue had been removed during the autopsy, wrapped in paraffin and stored in the warehouse.
Dr. Hultin immediately wrote to Dr. Taubenberger, telling him about his trip to Alaska. He offered to return to Brevig to see if he could find any more flu victims.
“I remember getting this letter and thinking, ‘Gosh. It’s really unbelievable. It’s amazing,” Dr. Taubenberger said in an interview this week. He thought the next step would be to apply for a grant to get Dr. Hultin back to Brevig. If all went well, Dr. Hultin could return there in a year or two.
Dr. Hultin had a different idea.
“I can’t go this week, but maybe I can go next week,” he told Dr Taubenberger.
He added that he would go alone and pay for the trip himself so there would be no objections from funding agencies, no delays, no ethics committees and no publicity.
Mrs Hultin told her husband that the village council would never allow her to disturb the grave again. “I told him it was a wild ride,” she recalled Tuesday.
Dr. Hultin, however, found an ally in council member Rita Olanna, whose loved ones had died during the flu pandemic and were buried in this grave. His grandmother had met Dr Hultin when he arrived in 1951. Mrs Olanna told Dr Hultin: “My grandmother said you treated the grave with respect.
He was allowed to reopen the tomb. This time, four young men from the village helped him dig.
At first, all the bodies they found were decomposed. Then, towards the end of the afternoon, when the hole was seven feet deep, they saw the body of a woman who was almost intact, with lungs still preserved. He extracted lung tissue and placed it in a preservation solution.
After closing the tomb, he made two wooden crosses to replace the original ones, which had rotted. Later he had two brass plaques made with the names of the Brevig flu victims, who had been recorded, and returned to the village to attach them to the new crosses flanking the tomb.
Upon his return to San Francisco, Dr. Hultin sent the lung tissue to Dr. Taubenberger in four packages – two with Federal Express, one with UPS, and another with United States Postal Service Express Mail. He didn’t want to take any risk of losing the fabric.
Dr. Taubenberger received all the packages. The Brevig woman’s lung tissue was invaluable, he said, because the soldiers’ lung extracts contained so little virus that, with the technology of the day, the effort to obtain the full viral sequence would have been delayed by at least a decade.
Using fabric provided by Dr. Hultin, Dr. Taubenberger’s group published a paper that provided the genetic sequence of a crucial gene, haemagglutinin, which the virus had used to enter cells. The group then used this tissue to determine the full sequence of the virus’s eight genes.
Johan Viking Hultin was born on October 7, 1924 into a wealthy family in Stockholm. His father, Viking Hultin, had inherited an export business. When Johan was 10, his parents divorced and his mother, Eivor Jeansson Hultin, married Carl Naslund, a pathologist and virologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
He had two sisters; one died of sepsis at age 6 and the other in a car accident at age 32. After high school, Johan went to Uppsala University to study medicine.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Gunvor Sande, while completing medical school. The couple divorced in 1973 and he married Eileen in 1985.
Besides his wife, Dr. Hultin is survived by his children, Peder Hultin, Anita Hultin and Ellen Swensen; three daughters-in-law, Christine Peck, Karen Hill and Deborah Kenealy; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Before the results of the Brevig Woman Virus study were released, Dr. Hultin asked the villagers if they would like the village to be identified in a press release and newspaper article. They could be besieged by the media. “Maybe you won’t like it,” he warned them.
The inhabitants of Brevig reached a consensus: publish the newspaper and identify the village. Dr. Hultin was listed as co-author.