1918 flu: So many victims, yet so few samples saved. Why?

Lately there has been much media coverage of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” that is regarded as the most lethal – or certainly one of the most lethal – pandemics in the history of the world. The flu was recently “decoded” and found to be dangerously similar to the Bird Flu that is now threatening to spread beyond Asia.

In all the reports about the decoding, they play up two extreme numbers: the staggeringly high quantity of Spanish Flu victims (in the tens of millions), and the exceptionally low number of existing infected tissue samples from 1918/19 that the researchers were able to find (as best as I can determine from the reports, three at most).

Let’s talk about those three samples. One came from an Alaskan victim whose body had remained frozen in his/her grave all these years. The other two came from an Army medical facility – begun at the behest of President Lincoln during the Civil War, many of the reports mention – that, they report, was charged with cataloging the autopsy samples of dead soldiers.

Now, how is it that with all the WWI service men who were felled by the flu – soldiers were probably the largest single population segment of victims here in the US – only two infected samples were collected by this medical facility? I would think they would have collected drawers full of samples. Furthermore, could that one facility, and the Alaskan tundra, really be the only repositories of infected tissue? There was nothing at the older medical schools or hospitals? How about overseas? Given the disease’s remarkable impact, why was no one interested in saving a piece of this thing?

They didn’t know there would be DNA technology which would allow scientists to learn more about it. They probably didn’t see much of a point in saving tissue samples-- what could anyone do with it?

Secondly, there wasn’t really a good way of saving samples. Some were embedded in wax, but they didn’t have reliable freezers to preserve tissue.

Now hold on a sec. The reports all describe this Army facility as having thousands and thousands (okay, I forget the actual number, but it’s a lot) of tissue samples that go back as far as the Civil War. So regardless of whether there was an immediate point to doing it, this place was out there rounding up lots of samples. Could it have only bothered to get two from flu victims?

Your second paragraph brings up a point that may shed some light on the mystery. Is it possible that they found many samples, but only the two from the Army facility (and the one from Alaska) were viable? That would explain a lot. But none of the news reports I’ve seen framed it that way.

In the last National Geographic there was an article about the Avian Flu in Vietnam and its similarities to the Spanish Flu of 1918. I know I saw a picture in the article of a large number of paraffin-preserved samples of what I believe they said were tissue from victims of the pandemic. I’d imagine that paraffin preservation isn’t terribly reliable, though, so it’s probably that the samples mentioned above were the only viable ones remaining.

Gross overwork taking care of the live patients.

they were really swamped!

IIRC, the virus was reconstructed, not from tissue samples which had decayed into uselesslness decades ago, but from corpses which had been buried in permafrost. Even then, all they could retrieve were various parts of the genome, which was successfully reconstructed artificially to generate the virus.

In 1918, virii(sp?) hadn’t been discovered yet. The germ theory of disease itself was only a couple of decades old, and doctors were still struggling to prove, rather than infer, that the presence of certain bacteria or other organisms was the cause of particular diseases. In the case of influenza you had a disease that was clearly infectious, yet no agent for it could be identified under a light microscope. Some theorized that a “virus” was actually liquid or colloidal, similar in concept to what we would now call a prion. It wasn’t until decades later that the existence of virii as discrete particles could be demonstrated.

So in the case of people who had died of Spanish Influenza, tissue samples simply didn’t have a lot of value. About all they showed was that the respiratory tissues had been ravaged by something, which no test yielded a positive sign for. What tissue samples were kept weren’t preserved carefully enough to yield samples of the virus.