Apparently the great influenza pandemic of 1918 was caused by a type of avian flu: 1918 Killer Pandemic Was An Avian Flu .
David Brown reports part of the story behind this discovery: Resurrecting 1918 Flu Virus Took Many Turns (Washington Post, October 10, 2005).
Key evidence came from the body of a woman who died in the Eskimo village of Teller Mission, on the Alaskan shore of the Bering Strait. (Teller Mission is now called Brevig Mission). The flu killed 72 persons of the town's population of 80 between November 15 and November 20, 1918.
The impact on Teller Mission is described in a National Academies Press book (Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections , 2002):
The flu had probably found its way to Brevig Mission (then known as Teller Mission) on the breath of unsuspecting travelers: passengers on a supply ship to Nome, then the men who brought those supplies to the nearby trading post of Teller, then Eskimos from the mission who loaded their dogsleds with supplies there. As the sickness spread, a pall descended on the gloomy outpost, where late-autumn sun lasted only four hours a day. “The sick were constantly moaning and groaning,” wrote one survivor, Clara Fosso, the Lutheran minister’s wife. “Outside, the loose wild dogs howled like wolves.”
A party from Teller traveled 14 miles by dogsled to offer whatever assistance they could. They shot the prowling dogs and searched for signs of life in the igloos. One housed 25 dead bodies. Another contained a pile of human bones—leftovers of a canine meal. The men pierced the seal-gut window of another abode to peer inside at a group of corpses. “Much snow had drifted in,” Fosso wrote. “Luckily, one thought he saw something move in the corner of the igloo. As they shouted down, three frightened children popped from under the deer skins screaming. They virtually had to be captured for they seemed to be in a wild stupor.”
Officials at the U.S. Army base at nearby Fort Davis brought in gold miners from Nome to dig a collective grave. Using steam generators, the miners melted a long rectangular gash in the earth. The victims were each tied with a rope around the chest, dragged across the ice, and laid side by side at an army regulation depth of six feet. Two tall wooden crosses, visible atop the bluff from the sea, marked the grave.
Elizabeth Pinson was six years old in 1918. Her father was a German who ran off to sea to escape recruitment into Bismark's armies, her mother was an Eskimo.
Pinson spent the summer of 1918 in fish camp. In the fall, instead of going with her parents to Teller, she went to spend a few weeks with her grandparents in nearby Teller Mission. The weather was bad in the fall of 1918, and her parents delayed picking her up from her grandparents.
Elizabeth's grandparents lived in a traditional Eskimo igloo. Elizabeth describes it in her new book, Alaska's Daughter: An Eskimo Memoir of the Early Twentieth Century:
Their one-room igloo was atop a forty-foot bluff that sloped steeply to the sea near the waterfall where Papa's whaler and other ships loaded water in drums to take aboard ships. Theirs was a typical Eskimo dwelling. The main floor of the earth igloo was dug about three feet into the ground. The frame was a foundation of split driftwood covered with squared chunks of tundra that eventually sodded over. On the walls hung reindeer hides that kept out the drafts. A skylight and a small window let in some light and the entrance was a low door about five feet high. As you opened the door to enter, you had to step down about two steps to the main floor, which was partly boards and partly earth.
I have often wondered since I grew up, how they could have lived in such conditions...
...Now there are scarcely any sod igloos left such as we lived in when I lived with my grandparents. Those that are left are decaying with time, just hollowed out places in the ground overgrown with tall grass, and the whalebone and driftwood frames have disappeared into splinters.
When the bad weather finally broke, Pinon's father sent her brother Tommy across the ice of the bay separating Teller and Teller Mission to see how things were going. Pinson describes what he found:
While Tommy was still a mile out on the ice heading for the mission he saw no smoke rising from the igloos, and he could hear the howling of unfed malamutes. When he reached the village, the ravenous dogs lunged to the limit of their chains at him and his team as he drove by. As he passed igloo after igloo, he wondered if everyone was ill with the flu or perhaps even dead. Some of the dogs were frozen to death at their posts, some weak from hunger, and some partially covered over with drifted snow. The closer Tommy got to grandfather's igloo, the more he began to worry. He tried not to think of the consequences. It was obvious that no one had stirred around the igloo for days for there was fresh snow all around but no tracks or footprints. He had to shovel away the drifted snow from around the door of the hut before he could open it. He looked around in the dimness, for there was very little light coming in from the side seal gut window and none from the skylight in the roof as the wind had blown a snowbank clear over the top of the igloo. One of the first things Tommy thought as he entered was how very cold it was in the hut. No one was up or stirring, and it looked pretty much deserted inside.
I had been sleeping in the same bunk as my grandmother. One evening as she prepared to bank the fire with wood from the meager pile beside the stove, grandma had told me that grandpa had died in his bed. The next morning I awoke and grandma had not stirred yet when ordinarily she was up and had built a fire. I talked to her and shook her by the shoulder to try to waken her, but she was lifeless and her face was cold. So I gathered in my childish intuition that grandma, too, was dead. But I did not worry my little head for long, for I began to get drowsy, and a feeling of lethargy came over me. Whenever I would awaken, I would think about grandma again and wonder why she had died. After all she had not complained about being ill, but then grandmother did not complain about anything. She was "solid as a rock" to our clan.
I think by the next day I moved a reindeer skin and a blanket on the floor in front of the bunk where my grandmother lay and made a bed for myself. I wanted to be as near to grandma as possible. Even though I know she was not able to give me physical comfort any longer, at least she was nearby.
I remember several times I tried to stand up, but I would fall in a heap on the floor. "What is going on?" I thought. "Why can't I use my feet?" I didn't get hysterical; I just lay back down and went to sleep for I was very drowsy this whole time. The hunger and cold I suffered would awaken me, and I would crawl on my hands and knees to the cupboard where my grandparents kept a meager supply of white man's food, such as soda crackers and dried prunes. I would eat a few crackers and some dried prunes and then crawl back to my bed on the floor. After awhile, I didn't make anymore trips to the cupboard for it was getting cumbersome to drag my lower body to get there. Besides, I was losing strength everyday and perhaps by this time suffering from hypothermia, a condition where body and mind are too cold to function properly.
When Tommy arrived at the igloo to check on us, snow had drifted inside the door and my brother found me lying on the wood floor of the sod hut. The temperature was well below freezing, while the temperature outside was forty to forty-five below zero. There had been no fire built in the stove for several days. To Tommy it must have been like walking into a deep freeze. Near the stove was a pail of water turned to solid ice, so Tommy, putting two and two together, figured I had been without heat in the hut for three or four days. When he went over to look at the grandparents, they were frozen as solid as stone. At one point I had evidently decided that I was going to go home, for Tommy said that I had all my outdoor weather clothing on, parka and mukluks.
Pinson survived a harrowing 100 mile dog sled trip to the hospital in Nome, where she lost both of her lower legs. She learned to walk with prosthetics and lived a normal life. I think she is still alive. Two thirds of her book describes growing up in Teller in the twenties of the last century. I've been recommending this book to my Alaskan friends.