Dr. Johan V. Hultin, a pathologist whose discovery of victims of the 1918 flu pandemic buried in Alaskan permafrost led to a critical understanding about the virus that caused the outbreak, died on Saturday at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 97.
The death was confirmed by his wife, Eileen Barbara Hultin.
Dr. Hultin’s discovery was crucial to finding the genetic sequence of the virus, allowing researchers to examine what made it so lethal and how to recognize it if it came again. The virus, which was 25 times more deadly than ordinary flu viruses, killed tens of millions of people and infected 28 percent of Americans, dropping the average life span in the United States by 12 years.
Dr. Hultin’s quest to find victims of the 1918 flu was sparked in 1950 by an offhand remark over lunch with a University of Iowa microbiologist, William Hale. Dr. Hale mentioned that there was just one way to figure out what caused the 1918 pandemic: finding victims buried in permafrost and isolating the virus from lungs that might be still frozen and preserved.
Dr. Hultin, a medical student in Sweden who was spending six months at the university, immediately realized that he was uniquely positioned to do just that. The previous summer, he and his first wife, Gunvor, spent weeks assisting a German paleontologist, Otto Geist, on a dig in Alaska. Dr. Geist could help him find villages in areas of permafrost that also had good records of deaths from the 1918 flu.
After persuading the university to provide him with a $10,000 stipend, Dr. Hultin set off for Alaska. It was early June 1951.
Three villages seemed like they might have what he wanted, but when he arrived at 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, killing 72 out of 80 Inuit residents. 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 one she had died in,” he recalled in an interview in the late 1990s. The child’s hair was 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 had enough,” Dr. Hultin said.
He removed still-frozen lung tissue from the victims, closed the grave and took the tissue back to Iowa, keeping it frozen on dry ice in the passenger compartment of a small plane.
Back in the lab, Dr. Hultin tried to grow the virus by injecting the lung tissue into fertilized chicken eggs — the standard way to grow flu viruses. He was caught up in the excitement of his experiment, he said, and had not thought about the possible danger of introducing a deadly virus into the world.
“I remember the sleepless nights,” he said. “I couldn’t wait for morning to come to charge into my lab and look at the eggs.”
But the virus was not growing.
He tried squirting lung tissue into the nostrils of guinea pigs, white mice and ferrets, but again he 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 resurrect that virus.
His chance came in 1997, when, sitting by a pool on vacation with his wife in Costa Rica, he noticed a paper published in Science by Dr. Jeffery K. Taubenberger, now chief of the viral pathogenesis and evolution section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
It reported a remarkable discovery. Dr. Taubenberger had searched a federal repository of pathology samples dating to the 1860s and found fragments of the 1918 virus in snippets of lung tissue from two soldiers who had died in that pandemic. The tissue had been removed at 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 more flu victims.
“I remember getting that letter and thinking: ‘Gosh. This is really incredible. This is amazing,’” Dr. Taubenberger said in an interview this week. He thought the next step would be to apply for a grant for Dr. Hultin to return to Brevig. If all went well, Dr. Hultin might go back 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 that 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 fool’s errand,” she recalled on Tuesday.
Dr. Hultin, though, found an ally in a council member, 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 grave again. This time, four young men from the village helped him dig.
At first, every body they found had decomposed. Then, toward the end of the afternoon, when the hole was seven feet deep, they saw the body of a woman that was mostly intact, with lungs that were still preserved. He extracted lung tissue and placed it in a preservative solution.
After closing the grave, 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, which had been recorded, and returned to the village to attach them to the new crosses flanking the grave.
When he returned to San Francisco, Dr. Hultin sent the lung tissue to Dr. Taubenberger in four packages — two with Federal Express, one with UPS and one more with the U.S. Postal Services’s Express Mail. He didn’t want to take any chances of losing the tissue.
Dr. Taubenberger got all of the packages. The lung tissue from the Brevig woman was invaluable, he said, because the snippets of lung from the soldiers had so little virus that, with the technology at the time, the effort to get the complete viral sequence would have been delayed by at least a decade.
Using the tissue Dr. Hultin provided, Dr. Taubenberger’s group published a paper that provided the genetic sequence of a crucial gene, hemagglutinin, which the virus had used to enter cells. The group subsequently used that tissue to determine the complete sequence of all eight of the virus’s genes.
Johan Viking Hultin was born on Oct. 7, 1924, into a wealthy Stockholm family. 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 6, and the other died in auto accident at 32. After high school, Johan went to Uppsala University to study medicine.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Gunvor Sande, when he was completing medical school. The couple divorced in 1973, and he married Eileen in 1985.
Along with his wife, Dr. Hultin is 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 results from the study of the Brevig woman’s virus were published, Dr. Hultin asked the villagers if they wanted the village to be identified in a news release and a journal article. They might be besieged by media. “Maybe you won’t like that,” he warned them.
The Brevig residents came to a consensus: Publish the paper and identify the village. Dr. Hultin was listed as a co-author.