Dickinson's Medical Riddle
Eighty years ago this week, five St. Joseph’s Hospital workers died one after the other, and no one knew the cause. The fifth victim, Sister Secundia, died on this day in 1926. The deaths were a puzzling and devastating loss for the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross and the community of Dickinson…and a riddle for the medical community.
Just ten days earlier, the sisters had been going about their regular duties caring for patients. On Saturday, February 13th, Sister Ambrosina and Sister Anacletea complained of being sleepy. On Sunday morning, Sister Fidelias and Sister Theocara felt ill too, but they all got up to attend Mass. On the way, one of them collapsed, and they all went to bed immediately. The doctors who examined them thought they may have been affected by wood stain fumes in the new wing of the hospital.
Their conditions worsened, and the first two died on Monday. When the third succumbed, the local headline read, “3 Sisters Die From Poison Gas.” Samples of the wood stain were sent to UND for analysis. The doctors and the press may have been grasping for an explanation.
When the fourth victim died, a coroner’s jury opened an investigation, and Dr. H. M. Banks, acting Dean of the medical school at UND took on the case. Shortly therafter, Sister Secundia died suddenly.
In the meantime, no other hospital attendants, patients or construction workers got sick. While Dr. Abbott, head of the Chemistry department at UND tested the wood stain, an autopsy was carried out on one of the sisters, and tissue samples were sent to UND.
A week later pathologists announced the five nuns had died of encephalitis, an inflammation involving the brain membrane and upper spinal cord. The disease was thought to have been caused by an infection, but the pathologists were unable to determine how the disease was acquired. They stressed the wood stain was not involved.
Weeks later, the Mayo Clinic confirmed UND’s findings with a diagnosis of meningo-encephalitis, which was sometimes called “sleeping sickness.” They noted the disease was most often found in children, and death sometimes resulted within 24 hours.
Who were the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross? The order had answered an appeal from Bishop Vincent Wehrle of Bismarck 14 years before the 1926 tragedy. The bishop wanted to establish a hospital at Dickinson, and turned to congregations in his native Switzerland to staff it.
According to the order’s history, six women were selected to make the journey to America, noting, “They were under no illusions and were ready to sacrifice personal home contact for the rest of their lives.” The hospital the bishop had built was just a shell when the nuns stepped off the train in 1912. In true Swiss style, they set about scrubbing the three-story building from top to bottom as soon as they arrived, and opened for business nine days later.
It was easy for the German-speaking nuns to gain the trust of the German-Russion immigrants in the region. And in time, as their English improved and they proved themselves in the flu epidemic of 1918, the rest of the community was won over, and the hospital thrived. The Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross operated St. Joseph’s Hospital from 1912 to 1987.
Today there are more than 4,000 Holy Cross Sisters and Associates serving around the world. Interestingly, the order was founded 150 years ago this year in Switzerland, seven years before a public organization with a similar mission got its start in the same nation. That organization is The International Red Cross.
“3 Sisters Die From Poison Gas” The Recorder (Dickinson, ND) 19 Feb 1926, p. 1.
“Pathologist Has Discovered Cause of Deaths” The Recorder 26 Feb 1926, p. 1.
“Natural Causes Responsible for Death of five Nuns - No Evidence of Poison Found” The Recorder 5 Mar. 1926, p.1.
“Infectious Disease Caused Death of Nuns – No Evidence of Poisoning is Discovered” The Bismarck Tribune 3 Mar. 1926, p.1
“Cause of Nurses’ Deaths Confirmed by Mayo Clinic” The Bismarck Tribune 16 Mar. 1926, p.1