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Time Machine: The elusive 1918 flu virus

Quest took 2 University of Iowa professors to Alaska in 1951

Dr. Albert P. McKee, a University of Iowa professor of microbiology, is shown in 1950, the year he resurrected the idea
Dr. Albert P. McKee, a University of Iowa professor of microbiology, is shown in 1950, the year he resurrected the idea of going to Alaska to find samples of the 1918 flu virus that killed an estimated 23 million people worldwide. McKee headed the nine-state regional influenza laboratory at the UI, one of nine World Health Organization labs in North America, that researched flu outbreaks and flu vaccines. (Gazette archives)
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Two University of Iowa professors, both of them medical doctors, mounted an effort in 1957 to learn more about the Spanish flu virus that killed an estimated 21 million people worldwide, including 6,000 in Iowa between 1918 and 1920.

The trip by Drs. Albert McKee and Jack Layton took them to a remote village in northern Alaska, 70 miles east of Siberia, to take tissue samples from Inuit natives buried in a mass grave.

In 1918, the Spanish flu killed 107 of the 115 natives living near the Brevig Mission. The deaths occurred so quickly the Army used a steam generator to thaw the permafrost and bury the victims together.

It was Dr. William Hale, who headed the UI bacteriology department, who came up with the idea in the 1940s of trying to retrieve the virus from that mass grave, thinking the permafrost may have preserved it. If it could be studied, and understood, perhaps scientists could create a vaccine that would prevent it from ever causing a worldwide pandemic again.

World War II got in the way of that, but McKee, a UI professor of microbiology, resurrected the idea in 1950. He was joined by Dr. Jack Layton, a bacteriology professor, and Johan Hultin, a UI graduate student from Sweden.

Hultin contacted a friend, Otto Geist, a research associate in paleontology at the University of Alaska, who spent a year gathering information about the Alaska pandemic for the team.

While waiting for that information, McKee — head of the Iowa regional influenza laboratory, one of nine World Health Organization labs in North America — continued to research flu outbreaks and new flu vaccines.

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“By our reporting process, we know where the epidemic areas are at all times all over the country and which way they are moving,” he said. “Our aim is constant research as well as providing information which can stop an outbreak before it becomes an epidemic, and to provide information for the use of different vaccines in the epidemic areas.”

In March 1951, McKee developed a vaccine for an Influenza A strain. Four months later, he headed to Alaska.

Off to Alaska

McKee, Layton and Hultin met in Fairbanks in July 1951, where they waited for clearance from the U.S. Department of the Interior; the Alaska governor; Hugh G. Wade, a 1924 UI law school graduate who was director of Alaska Native Service; the U.S. Public Health Service; and the territorial commissioner of health, whose assistant had once been a professor at the University of Iowa.

They then went to Nome to talk with Joseph Kehoe, a judge in the Alaskan Territory, and, ultimately, with the council of natives from the remote Brevig Mission and the relatives of those who had died in 1918.

One older native told the researchers his wife was one of those killed by the virus.

The council gave the Iowans permission to take samples from the mass grave.

Excavation

The mass grave was 8 miles from Brevig Mission. McKee, Layton and Hultin worked through several long Alaska days, into the wee hours of the morning, digging through 6 feet of tundra and permafrost, before taking small samples of lung tissue from four victims.

Facing a storm, McKee and Hultin set out on foot for the nearby city of Teller, leaving Layton and Geist behind with the gear to follow when they could.

When the dry ice McKee and Hultin had intended to use to preserve the specimens evaporated, they put the specimens in glass-lined metal thermoses surrounded by carbon dioxide collected in spurts from a fire extinguisher.

The researchers hurried home, only to find the samples they’d taken would not reveal any secrets. The molecular genetic analysis required had not been invented, and the samples were destroyed.

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It would not be until 1995 that a team from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., would return to Alaska and collect samples that allowed them to reconstruct the 1918 flu virus gene sequence.

In 1957, McKee was called on to analyze a flu virus that sickened people at a church youth conference in Grinnell. It was the Asian flu, which was relatively mild, though some Iowa schools temporarily closed in the fall when more than 50 percent of the students, teachers and staff were ill.

The Asian flu came back in 1963, though it was mild because people had flu shots and acquired immunity.

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