The mystery of a 1918 veteran and the flu pandemic

Vaccination is underway for the 2017-2018 seasonal flu, and next year will mark the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed roughly 40 million people. It is an opportune time to consider the possibility of pandemics – infections that go global and affect many people – and the importance of measures aimed at curbing them.

The 1918 pandemic was unusual in that it killed many healthy 20- to 40-year-olds, including millions of World War I soldiers. In contrast, people who die of the flu are usually under five years old or over 75.

The factors underlying the virulence of the 1918 flu are still unclear. Modern-day scientists sequenced the DNA of the 1918 virus from lung samples preserved from victims. However, this did not solve the mystery of why so many healthy young adults were killed.

I started investigating what happened to a young man who immigrated to the U.S. and was lost during World War I. Uncovering his story also brought me up to speed on hypotheses about why the immune systems of young adults in 1918 did not protect them from the flu.

The 1918 flu and World War I

Certificates picturing the goddess Columbia as a personification of the U.S. were awarded to men and women who died in service during World War I. One such certificate surfaced many decades later. This one honored Adolfo Sartini and was found by grandnephews who had never known him: Thomas, Richard and Robert Sartini.

The certificate was a message from the past. It called out to me, as I had just received the credential of certified genealogist and had spent most of my career as a scientist tracing a gene that regulates immune cells. What had happened to Adolfo?

An Italian immigrant to the U.S., Adolfo Sartini, died from the flu while in the military. Courtesy of Robert Sartini, Author provided (No reuse)
A bit of sleuthing identified Adolfo’s ship listing, which showed that he was born in 1889 in Italy and immigrated to Boston in 1913. His draft card revealed that he worked at a country club in the Boston suburb of Newton. To learn more, Robert Sartini bought a 1930 book entitled “Newton War Memorial” on eBay. The book provided clues: Adolfo was drafted and ordered to report to Camp Devens, 35 miles from Boston, in March of 1918. He was later transferred to an engineer training regiment.

To follow up, I posted a query on the “U.S. Militaria Forum.” Here, military history enthusiasts explained that the Army Corps of Engineers had trained men at Camp A. A. Humphreys in Virginia. Perhaps Adolfo had gone to this camp?

While a mild flu circulated during the spring of 1918, the deadly strain appeared on U.S. soil on Tuesday, Aug. 27, when three Navy dockworkers at Commonwealth Pier in Boston fell ill. Within 48 hours, dozens more men were infected. Ten days later, the flu was decimating Camp Devens. A renowned pathologist from Johns Hopkins, William Welch, was brought in. He realized that “this must be some new kind of infection or plague.” Viruses, minuscule agents that can pass through fine filters, were poorly understood.

With men mobilizing for World War I, the flu spread to military installations throughout the U.S. and to the general population. It hit Camp Humphreys in mid-September and killed more than 400 men there over the next month. This included Adolfo Sartini, age 29½. Adolfo’s body was brought back to Boston.

His grave is marked by a sculpture of the lower half of a toppled column, epitomizing his premature death.