Johan Hultin is a retired pathologist known for discovering tissues containing traces of the 1918 influenza virus that killed millions worldwide, and for this he has been described as the "Indiana Jones of the scientific set."
Born in Sweden in 1925, Hultin immigrated to the U.S. and earned his Master's degree at the University of Iowa. During his time there, he researched and warned against bioterrorism. He worked at several hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area. During his spare time, he developed ways to improve automotive safety which led to recognition by the U.S. Department of Transportation. He is an avid hiker and is the oldest person to ski Mustagh Ata in China.
1918 influenza discovery
In 1951 the pathologist tried to isolate the 1918 influenza virus from victims who had been buried in the Alaskan permafrost of a town called Brevig Mission. During the pandemic, 72 of the town's 80 residents perished from the flu. In his search, he unearthed bodies but failed to find any live viruses.
Nearly 50 years later, in July 1997, Hultin read an article in the journal Science written by virologist Jeffery Taubenberger who was looking for samples of the 1918 flu. Hultin offered his services and returned to Brevig Mission. Again he received permission to dig for victims of the 1918 “Spanish flu”, and this time he unearthed the remains of an obese woman, roughly thirty years old, whom he christened "Lucy". The fat had protected her lungs from decay, and he took both of them. It turned out that in Lucy's case there was enough material to sequence the complete 1918 virus many times over. This sample provided scientists a first-hand opportunity to study the virus, which was inactivated with guanidinium thiocyanate before transport. This sample and others found in U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) archives allowed researchers to completely analyze the critical gene structures of the 1918 virus. Using the recovered traces, scientists revealed that the virus originated from birds and mutated to infect people.