Johan Hultin, a pathologist who recovered human tissue still harboring the virus from the influenza pandemic of 1918 almost 80 years later, died on January 22 at the age of 97.
Johan Viking Hultin was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1924. His parents divorced when he was a child and his mother remarried a man who served on the Nobel committee that determined the recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He came of age as World War II raged across Europe, stifling his opportunity to travel and see the world.
“The countries around us were occupied by the Germans, so I grew up confined to Sweden,” Hultin told Sports Illustrated in May 2020. Around age 20, as the war abated, “I took off," he said, walking on foot to see the pyramids of Giza, which he accomplished in just over two weeks, working in a ship’s engine room to earn passage across the Mediterranean Sea.
Hultin and his first wife took an extensive tour of the United States in 1949, visiting all states as well as the then-Alaskan territory, he told SI. The people he met on this trip inspired him to leave Uppsala University and study at the University of Iowa.
In 1951, Hultin, then a graduate student, became interested in learning more about the influenza virus that caused a pandemic in 1918 so that scientists could make a vaccine against it and prevent future outbreaks, The Washington Post reports. In order to find the virus, he’d have to have a sample of infected tissue—a tall order more than 30 years after the pandemic’s end.
He discovered that a promising location to find intact tissue would be the Brevig Mission, a remote village in Alaska that Hultin visited in 1951. During the 1918 pandemic, 72 of the 80 villagers died within a five-day span. The bodies were buried in the permafrost, which drastically slowed decomposition. Hultin showed respect to the village Elders and pledged to do the same with the remains, so he was shown to the graves. The Post reports that the first body found belonged to a young girl whose dress was still intact, as were the red ribbons securing her braided hair. Samples from five individuals were taken and the tissues were sent back to Iowa City. However, Hultin wasn’t able to glean information from them.
Frustrated at being unable to culture the virus from the samples, Hultin left microbiology after receiving his master’s degree and instead went to medical school. He graduated in 1953 and worked as a pathologist for the bulk of his career, first at the Mayo Clinic in Wisconsin for a few years before relocating to California’s Bay Area in 1957, where he worked at both hospitals and clinics.
Hultin’s big break came in 1997, after he had retired, when he read in Science that virologist Jeffery Taubenberger had sequenced nine fragments of RNA from the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic. Hultin wrote a letter to Taubenberger, telling him about his trip to Brevig Mission in 1951 and how well the permafrost preserved the human tissues. A week later, Hultin was headed back up north, The New York Times reports. Unwilling to wait for a grant, he funded his trip himself and brought his own tools, including a pair of his wife’s gardening shears. His reverence to the villagers and the remains were again rewarded with access to the graves, and he also paid a few locals to help with the digging.
Though most of the bodies had decomposed considerably since his last trip 46 years prior, he was able to find some frozen lung tissue to send back to Taubenberger. In 1999, Hultin was listed as a coauthor on the paper sequencing the virus’ complete genome along with other papers in subsequent years identifying it as H1N1, an influenza virus that originated in birds.
Hultin is survived by his second wife, Eileen, and his four children from his first marriage.