Johan Hultin was 72, comfortably retired and happily married, when he decided to dig up the dead bodies again. The year was 1997. There was no pandemic; no urgent reason to fly to Alaska, hike into the wilderness and search for remnants of the deadliest virus the world had ever known.
There was just a nagging thirst within the adventurer, and a few other curious pathologists, to learn at a molecular level why the 1918 flu had been so lethal. Why had this particular pathogen, which history calls the Spanish flu, killed as many as 100 million people in just two years—more death than any other ailment had caused in such a span; more, by some estimates, than in World Wars I and II and Vietnam, combined—while other influenzas came and went unnoticed?
Hultin had tried to find the answer once before. In 1951, when he was a 25-year-old doctoral candidate at Iowa, he deployed the alpine mountaineering skills he’d honed as a youth in Sweden, trekking to an Alaskan outpost called Brevig Mission, where the 1918 flu had killed 72 of 80 adult residents. For days Hultin dug alone into the icy earth of a mass grave, hoping to discover well-preserved remains of some of those six dozen victims. He succeeded and carried the samples home to Iowa City—but he and his colleagues failed to decode the virus.