March 18, 2000

If you've ever seen the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know that almost anything may be hidden away in vast government repositories, perhaps even the lost Ark of the Covenant itself. Consider the following. In the early 1990s, inside a low, corrugated steel warehouse, just across the Maryland line from Washington, D. C., within fireproof walls, little cardboard boxes fill row after row of metal shelves. Inside each box is a small block of paraffin wax. Inside one of these waxen lumps lay a clue that would uncover the identity of a mass murderer. Why were they all here? For the answer we need to go back over a hundred-and-twenty years.

As the American Civil War raged on, it became apparent that more troops on both sides were dying of disease than were killed on the battlefield. Knowledge of germ theory was close to nil. In August of 1864 Confederate Surgeon-General, S. P. Moore, launching an investigation into the causes of smallpox, studied the notorious prison camp at Andersonville, where the death rate from the disease was extremely high, but with defeat and the end of the war less than a year away, his efforts were short-lived. It was an earlier northern project that would eventually bear fruit. Following an Executive Order of Abraham Lincoln, U. S. Surgeon General William Hammond established the Army Medical Museum in May of 1862. As part of his mandate he ordered the collecting of "all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign
bodies removed, and such other matters as may prove of interest in the study
of military medicine or surgery." He assigned his assistant John Brinton to organize it. Among the requested material was human tissue from the wounded and the dead. Brinton toured mid-Atlantic battlefields, gathering contributions from killing ground and hospital. These human materials formed the nucleus of the collection that wound up in that corrugated Maryland warehouse.

And it was here in 1995 a researcher from the Armed Forces Institute of Patholgy, having invented a challenging project for himself, came, along with a low-level lab technician. Who just happened to have experience extracting virus fragments out of long-preserved tissue. It was a lengthy and torturous trail they followed, filled with many failed experiments, and months of tedious, painstaking, exacting work. But it was in one of those paraffin blocks, that tissue from a 21-year-old soldier who died back on September 19, 1918, lead Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger and Ann Reid, to the sub microscopic killer that had quickly filled uncountable millions of graves in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

To follow the entire fascinating trail that lead medical detectives Taubenberger and Reid to the World War I killer, you can take a look at Gina Kolata's new book "Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918."

© David Minor / Eagles Byte