Johan Hultin, pathologist whose work in Alaska helped identify origins of 1918 flu pandemic, dies at age 97

The first body he found was that of a girl with ribbons in her hair.

It was 1951, and a young graduate student named Johan Hultin had been digging through permafrost in a remote Alaska village, seeking to recover tissue specimens from the deadly influenza pandemic that had swept the world 33 years before.

“She had a beautiful blue dress on,” Hultin later recalled of the young girl he exhumed. “When she died, they just picked her up and put her in the grave. She had black, braided hair and red ribbons at the end. It was a pretty touching scene.”

The girl was one of 72 people from the village of Brevig Mission (then called Teller Mission) who died between Nov. 15 and Nov. 20, 1918. Only eight villagers survived the epidemic.

Hultin took tissue samples back to his laboratory at the University of Iowa, but he was unable to re-create viable cultures of the influenza virus. He went on to become a forensic pathologist in California and pursued other interests, such as mountain climbing, carpentry and improving the safety features of automobiles. But he never forgot the girl he saw in the frozen grave in Alaska.

Hultin, who returned to Alaska in his 70s and made a discovery that led to a major breakthrough in determining the origins of the 1918 flu pandemic, died Jan. 22 at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 97. His death was confirmed by his wife, Eileen Hultin, who did not provide a specific cause.

[How an Alaska village grave led to a Spanish flu breakthrough]

Through the years, Hultin read everything he could find on the pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 675,000 Americans, in 1918 and 1919.

“The virus will come back,” he said in 1998. “It isn’t a question of if, but of when. It’s imperative we know as much as possible.”

In 1997, Hultin saw an article in Science magazine by a scientist who had obtained lung tissue from soldiers who died of the flu in 1918 and was able to develop a partial sequence of the virus’s genetic code. He corresponded with the author, Jeffery Taubenberger - then a molecular pathologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington - and they discussed the possibility of finding new specimens of the virus in Alaska.

Ordinarily, with the tedious business of grant applications and travel logistics, it would take years to organize a scientific expedition.

“I can go next week,” Hultin said.

The only reason he couldn’t leave sooner, his wife said in an interview, was that “he promised me he would finish the fireplace first.” (He was nearing completion of a 40-year project to build a reproduction of a 14th-century Norwegian cabin in the Sierra Nevadas.)

Hultin, who was then 72, bought an airline ticket, put a few tools - including his wife’s garden shears - in a duffel bag and flew to Anchorage. He took a freight plane to Nome, then found a bush pilot to fly him to Brevig Mission, on the western end of the Seward Peninsula, with no roads leading in or out. The town, inhabited mostly by Native Alaskans, is near the Bering Strait and less than 100 miles from the Arctic Circle.

During his first visit in 1951, Hultin sought permission from village elders, including survivors of the pandemic, to dig up the mass grave. When he returned 46 years later, village matriarch Rita Olanna remembered his visit from her childhood.

“My grandmother said you treated the grave with respect,” she told him.

Hultin asked if he could reopen the grave, explaining that it might be possible to develop a vaccine to prevent a calamity like the one that had swept through the village in 1918. He was granted permission and, with the help of several local boys, began digging that day.

The long summer days allowed Hultin to work from 9 a.m. until midnight. He slept on the floor at the local school. On the fourth day, he found two skeletons at a depth of 7 feet.

“In between was a woman, in an amazingly good state of preservation, maybe 25 to 35 years old,” Hultin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I sat on an upside-down pail and looked at her, and I began to see the reason: She had been obese, and her skin and fatty tissue were so thick that they protected her body from thawing and freezing and decay.”

He used the garden shears to open the rib cage and remove the lungs from the corpse of the woman he called Lucy. He took other tissue samples, which he placed in a preservative solution, then closed the grave.

Back in California, he mailed four packages to Taubenberger, using the Postal Service, UPS and FedEx, not wanting to send them in one shipment. All four arrived safely. Within days, Taubenberger had discovered that Lucy’s lung tissues contained traces of the influenza virus.

Taubenberger included Dr. Hultin as a co-author on scholarly articles about the new find from Alaska. By 2005, Taubenberger, Ann H. Reid and other colleagues had deciphered the complete genome of the 1918 virus and published the results in the scientific journal Nature, showing that the pathogen originated in birds. The paper was called one of the “breakthroughs of the year” by Science magazine.

“If we could learn the lessons of the pandemic of 1918 and why it was so virulent,” Taubenberger, now at the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview, “what could we learn that would apply to what we’re going through now?”

Hultin, who was sometimes dubbed the Indiana Jones of virus hunters, paid for the trip to Alaska himself. The entire expedition cost $3,200, including $900 for the young men who helped him dig into the permafrost.

“Johan deserves a huge amount of credit,” Taubenberger, who traveled to Brevig Mission with Hultin in 2005, told the San Francisco Chronicle that year. “This effort could not have been achieved without him. It’s all due to that one crucial sample . . . the material that he gave us that made all this work possible.”

Johan Viking Hultin was born Oct. 7, 1924, in Stockholm. His parents were wealthy from family-run businesses. After his parents’ divorce, his mother married a pathologist who served on the committee that awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

Hultin was an outstanding runner and skier in his youth and studied medicine at Sweden’s Uppsala University. In 1949, he came to the United States with his wife at the time, visiting all 48 states and continuing north to Alaska.

While there, Hultin worked briefly with a German paleontologist, Otto Geist, before entering graduate school at the University of Iowa. He later enlisted Geist’s help in finding graves to exhume for his virus research.

Hultin received a master’s degree in microbiology in 1951, but he abandoned his PhD studies when he was unable to re-create the influenza virus. Instead, he attended Iowa’s medical school, from which he graduated in 1953. He trained as a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, moved to California in 1957 and worked at hospitals in Palo Alto, San Francisco and Los Gatos.

After performing an autopsy on a car accident victim, Hultin became interested in auto safety in the 1960s, experimenting with safety belts, padded dashboards and collapsible bumpers and drawing attention from consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He helped establish an automotive safety program at what was then the Stanford Research Institute.

He retired from pathology in 1988 but kept busy with other pursuits. He climbed mountains in the Himalayas and Andes and once reached the top of a 24,000-foot peak in China on skis. He built his Norwegian-style cabin out of redwood logs, using only hand tools.

His marriage to Gunvor Sande ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 36 years, the former Eileen Bowers of Walnut Creek; three children from his first marriage, Peder Hultin of Petaluma, Calif., Anita Hultin of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Ellen Swensen of Rancho Mirage, Calif.; three stepdaughters, Christine Peck of Salisbury, Mass., Karen Hill of Portola Valley, Calif., and Deborah Kenealy of Sudbury, Mass.; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Viveca Murphy, died in December.

At the end of his visit to Brevig Mission in 1997, Dr. Hultin spent all night in the school workshop, building two large wooden crosses to commemorate the burial site. He returned a year later and placed a brass plaque on one of the crosses, inscribed with the names of the 72 villagers who died in the pandemic of 1918.