100 years ago the flu pandemic ravaged regional communities
The dedication of the Sitnasuanmiut Qunuwit on October 1 is a link to one of the darkest chapters in the history of Nome and the Seward Peninsula. The memorial honors the local people, the Sitnasuanmiut, who perished in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, a terror which claimed more lives worldwide than any other disease in human history. More than 175 people, most of them Native, lie in a mass grave on the West Beach hillside. The entire Seward Peninsula was devastated by the deadly virus.
On October 20, 1918 the ship Victoria arrived at the Port of Nome from Seattle. The Spanish flu was already raging in Seattle so before embarking every passenger and crewmember of the Victoria was examined by two physicians operating independently of each other. Anybody showing signs of sickness was denied passage. On the trip north there was no flu, no illness of any kind. All who went ashore in Nome were quarantined in a hospital for five days. But within a few days the disease appeared and by November 1 it had reached Nome’s Native village. Few escaped. In eight days 162 Native people were dead. Of the more than 300 whites who caught the flu 25 died. One of the first victims was Walter Shields, Alaskan Superintendent of Education. His relationship to the Native villages as head of the teachers meant his loss was a blow to efforts to organize a defense against the plague. Daniel S. Neuman, Nome’s only physician, was felled by the flu, caught pneumonia and was incapacitated. At Fort Davis Dr. Burson remained as the only physician. But he had 75 patients out of the 85 soldiers at the fort to look after.
At first the isolation of Alaska protected the people from the epidemic. But once it hit the disease was more devastating than anyplace else in America. Because of the climate, pneumonia and other respiratory ailments were common and deadly. When freeze up arrived Nome was isolated and left to fight the flu without assistance. Many of those who were important in the fight against the disease died in the first days.
The smaller villages to the north of Nome suffered terribly. In Teller only 80 of the village’s one 150 residents survived. In Wales there had been no warning. A boy from York, just down the trail, had died and he was brought to Wales for burial. Soon his father was sick and the epidemic began. Every last person in York perished. The epidemic exploded in Wales and in a few days all but a few were infected.
One family kept away from the others and escaped the disease. The toll in Wales was 170 dead, including five babies born during the epidemic. This was out of a total population of 310 people. Half the people of Brevig Mission died, 65 to 70 percent of the population in and around Mary’s Igloo.
Shishmaref officials prevented the virus from reaching the village and spreading northward by establishing a rigid quarantine and posting guards day and night eight miles down the coast toward Wales. Shishmaref leaders were forewarned by a messenger from Deering who brought news that Shields had died of the flu in Nome and that many others were dying in villages, including neighboring Wales.
Similar action was taken at Shaktoolik by Stephan Ivanoff, town council chairman, who appointed two guards for wages of four reindeer each month and stopped all visiting within the village. Children were prevented from playing in large groups. The penalty for breaking any of these regulations was to furnish the town with a half to two cords of wood, sawed, split and piled.
Dr. William Ramsey, a physician who resided at Council and his assistant at White Mountain, maintained strict quarantine regulations in each village. In both villages their efforts paid off as nobody caught the deadly flu.
By the time the 1918 flu virus burned out on the Seward Peninsula it had claimed some 750 lives, the majority of them Alaska Natives. Hundreds of children were left orphaned. Thanks to their isolation Diomede, King Island, the Pribilofs, and St. Lawrence Island were spared. The flu did not touch them.
Worldwide an estimated 50 million people perished from the virus. In India alone 20 million died. The total for the USA exceeded 550,000. This strain of flu was unusual in that the mortality was so high. It was concentrated on an unusually young age group but not so lethal to young children.
Questions about the Spanish Influenza dogged scientists. Why was it so deadly? So explosive? Other flu epidemics had similar characteristics but none had so thoroughly devastated a population, traveled so rapidly, nor targeted primarily those in the prime of life. In 1951 a Swedish medical student studying microbiology at the University of Iowa heard a virologist suggest that the key to understanding the long-gone flu strain might be found in the frozen remains of flu victims buried in Alaska’s permafrost. After doing some preliminary research Johan Hultin, the Swede, traveled to Brevig Mission, which had been ravaged by the pandemic in 1918. Hultin sought permission from the village Elders and they granted him access to the remains. After two days of laboriously removing layer after layer of frozen soil he reached the first body. He removed lung tissue and returned to the lab in Iowa City. Despite their best efforts he and his colleagues were unable to isolate the virus and learn anything about it.
Forty-six years later Hultin, now a retired pathologist living in San Francisco, read an article in a scientific journal about a molecular pathologist looking for samples of the flu virus to supplement two samples he had from soldiers who’d died of the flu in 1918. Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger was Chief of the Viral Pathogenesis and Evolution Section, Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health. Hultin contacted him, told of his history with the flu virus, and volunteered to travel to Brevig Mission and try once more. This time he was successful in getting lung tissue, which contained the DNA of the virus. After eight years of work Dr. Taubenberger and his colleagues were able to reconstruct and map the structure of the virus. From it they learned that it had originated in birds and mutated to infect humans.
In a sense, the new knowledge is the ultimate frustration. Scientists have captured the mass murderer, the 1918 flu virus. But they still do not know its murder weapon. “We definitely have the right suspect, but we do not yet know how the murder was committed,” Jeffrey Taubenberger said.
This story was written from information found in several excellent sources. They include: “America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918” by Alfred W. Crosby, University of Texas Austin, 2nd Edition; “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918” by Gina Kolata; “Villager’s remains lead to 1918 flu breakthrough” by Ned Rozelle, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks; “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry; and articles by Laurie McNicholas in the Nome Nugget, Aug. 3, 2000.