Valley City Times-Record

Dickinson’s Medical Riddle

- By Merry Helm

February 23, 2023 — This week in 1926, 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 thereafter, 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 meningoenc­ephalitis, which was sometimes called “sleeping sickness.”

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnershi­p with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepub­, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairi­

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States