Johan Hultin, who found frozen clues to the 1918 virus, dies at 97

dr. Johan V. Hultin, a pathologist whose discovery of victims of the 1918 flu pandemic buried in Alaska’s permafrost sparked a critical understanding of the virus that caused the outbreak, died Saturday at his home in Walnut Creek, California. He was 97 .

The death was confirmed by his wife, Eileen Barbara Hultin.

The discovery of Dr. Hultin was crucial in finding the genetic sequence of the virus, allowing researchers to investigate what made it so deadly and how to recognize it if it came back. The virus, which was 25 times more deadly than regular flu viruses, killed tens of millions of people and infected 28 percent of Americans, reducing the average lifespan in the United States by 12 years.

dr. Hultin’s search for victims of the 1918 flu was sparked in 1950 by a careless remark over lunch with University of Iowa microbiologist William Hale. dr. Hale said there was only one way to find out what caused the 1918 pandemic: find victims buried in permafrost and isolate the virus from lungs that may still be frozen and preserved.

dr. Hultin, a medical student in Sweden who spent six months at university, immediately realized he was in a unique position to do just that. Last summer, he and his first wife, Gunvor, spent weeks helping a German paleontologist, Otto Geist, on an Alaska dig. dr. Geist was able to help him find villages in areas with permafrost that also had good data on deaths from the 1918 flu.

After persuading the university to give him a $10,000 stipend, Dr. Hultin to Alaska. It was early June 1951.

Three villages seemed to have what he wanted, but when he got to the first two, the victims’ graves were no longer in permafrost.

The third village on his list, Brevig Mission, was different. The flu had devastated the village and 72 of the 80 Inuit residents had died. Their bodies were buried in a mass grave with a large wooden cross at either 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 gray dress, the dress in which she died,” he recalled in an interview in the late 1990s. The child’s hair was braided and tied with bright red ribbons. dr. Hultin enlisted the help of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the group eventually found four more bodies.

They stopped digging. “We had enough,” said Dr. Hultin.

He removed still-frozen lung tissue from the victims, closed the grave and took the tissue back to Iowa, where he kept it frozen on dry ice in the passenger compartment of a small plane.

Back at the lab, Dr. Hultin grow the virus by injecting the lung tissue into fertilized chicken eggs – the standard way to grow flu viruses. He was preoccupied with the excitement of his experiment, he said, and hadn’t considered the potential danger of introducing a deadly virus into the world.

“I remember the sleepless nights,” he said. “I couldn’t wait for morning to come into my lab and look at the eggs.”

But the virus did not grow.

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 bid his time, working as a pathologist in a private practice in San Francisco and hoping for another chance to revive that virus.

His opportunity came in 1997 when, sitting by a pool vacationing with his wife in Costa Rica, he saw an article published in Science by Dr. Jeffery K. Taubenberger, now chief of the division of viral pathogenesis and evolution at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

It reported a remarkable discovery. dr. Taubenberger had searched a federal repository of pathology samples from the 1860s and found fragments of the 1918 virus in fragments of lung tissue from two soldiers who had died during that pandemic. The tissue was removed at autopsy, wrapped in paraffin and stored in the warehouse.

dr. Hultin immediately wrote to Dr. Taubenberger and told him about his trip to Alaska. He offered to go back to Brevig to see if he could find any more flu victims.

“I remember getting that letter and thinking, ‘Gosh. This is really unbelievable. This is amazing,’ Dr. Taubenberger said in an interview this week. He thought the next step would be to apply for a scholarship. ask for Dr. Hultin to return to Brevig.If all went well, Dr. Hultin may go back in a year or two.

dr. Hultin had another idea.

“I can’t go this week, but maybe I can 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 him to disturb the grave again. “I told him it was a silly message,” she recalled Tuesday.

dr. However, Hultin found an ally in a councilman, Rita Olanna, whose relatives had died during the flu pandemic and were buried in that grave. Her grandmother had met Dr. Hultin when he arrived in 1951. Ms. Olanna told Dr. Hultin, “My grandmother said you treated the grave with respect.”

He was allowed to open the tomb again. This time, four young men from the village helped him dig.

In the beginning, every body they found had perished. Then, towards the end of the afternoon, when the hole was six feet deep, they saw the body of a woman largely intact, with lungs still preserved. He took out lung tissue and placed it in a preservative solution.

After closing the tomb, he made two wooden crosses to replace the original ones, which were rotten. Later he had two brass plates made with the names of the Brevig flu victims, which had been recorded, and returned to the village to fasten them to the new crosses next to the grave.

When he returned to San Francisco, Dr. Hultin the lung tissue to Dr. Taubenberger in four packages – two with Federal Express, one with UPS, and another with the US Postal Services Express Mail. He didn’t want to risk losing the tissue.

dr. Taubenberger got all the packages. The Brevig woman’s lung tissue was invaluable, he said, because the soldiers’ pieces of lung contained so little virus that with the technology at the time, the effort to get the full viral sequence took at least a decade.

Using the tissue that Dr. Hultin delivered, Dr. Taubenberger published a paper providing the genetic sequence of a crucial gene, hemagglutinin, that the virus had used to enter cells. The group then used that tissue to fully sequence all eight of the virus’s genes.

Johan Viking Hultin was born on October 7, 1924 in a wealthy family from 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 died in a car accident at age 32. After high school, Johan went to Uppsala University to study medicine.

He married his high school sweetheart, Gunvor Sande, when he was graduating from medical school. The couple divorced in 1973 and he married Eileen in 1985.

Together with his wife, Dr. Hultin survived by his children, Peder Hultin, Anita Hultin and Ellen Swensen; three stepdaughters, Christine Peck, Karen Hill and Deborah Kenealy; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Before the results of the Brevig woman virus study were published, Dr. Hultin the villagers if they wanted the village to be identified in a press release and magazine article. They can be besieged by the media. “Maybe you won’t like that,” he warned them.

The inhabitants of Brevig came to a consensus: publish the newspaper and identify the village. dr. Hultin was listed as a co-author.

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