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Legionnaires’ Disease Caused Widespread Panic

Culture | August 30, 2018

Members of the Pennsylvania American Legion confer among themselves while waiting to testify before a special congressional inquiry into the cause of the Mysterious Legionnaires Disease. (Getty Images)

In the summer of 1976, amid news coverage of America’s Bicentennial celebrations, headlines across the country announced that a mysterious illness has swept through an American Legion convention in Philadelphia, killing 29 people and sickening another 182. As the Center for Disease Control investigated the case, people worried that a new strain of flu was coming. What they found wasn’t the flu, but a newly-identified respiratory disease that became known as Legionnaires’ Disease. 

The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in 1976

The American Legion Hosts Its Annual Conference in Philadelphia

The three-day long national conference by the American Legion was planned for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to take advantage of the year-long celebration of the American Bicentennial. Many activities and events were slated for Philadelphia, the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The convention, which started on July 21, 1976, took place at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel and was attended by more than 2,000, mostly-male Legionnaires. 

Washington Post Stephen Thacker, right, of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, interviews Thomas Payne in Chambersburg Hospital in Pennsylvania on Aug. 4, 1976. (Washington Post)

Legionnaire Ray Brennan Became the First Casualty

Ray Brennan, a retired Air Force captain and 61-year old American Legion bookkeeper, returned home from the convention complaining for tiredness and chest pain. When he died three days after the conclusion of the convention, his death was chalked up to a heart attack. But then a fellow Legionnaire, 60-year old Frank Aveni, also died of an apparent heart attack. Then three more Legionnaires died. All of them had the same symptoms…fatigue, fever, chest pains and congestion. 

A Doctor Was the First to Link the Deaths to the Convention

Three of the men who died shortly after the end of the American Legion conference were all patients of the same doctor, Dr. Ernest Campbell of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. He noted that all three men had the same symptoms, died suddenly with no previous heart histories, and had recently attended the American Legion conference. He alerted the Pennsylvania Department of Health about his concerns. The American Legion’s national office had also contacted the Department of Health after getting word that many of the Legionnaires had died suddenly right after the conference. 

29 Legionnaires Died, And Many More Were Ill

In addition to learning about the unexpected deaths of 29 Legionnaires in the days following the conference, the Pennsylvania Department of Health learned that many more conference attendees had fallen ill with the same mysterious, pneumonia-like sickness. In all, 149 Legionnaires were hospitalized, along with 33 employees and associates of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly ruled out an external, like an epidemic, and focused their investigation on the hotel. 

News Reports of the Mysterious Deaths Created Panic

At the time of the Legionnaire deaths and illnesses, the American public was on edge about a potential epidemic. Author Michael Crichton had released his techno-thriller, Andromeda Strain, in 1969, and the hit book was made into a blockbuster movie in 1971. Under President Gerald Ford, the government was setting plans in motion to vaccinate the entire American population against the swine flu, a new and potentially deadly strain of influenza. People were primed for an epidemic threat and, when word broke about the American Legion outbreak, there was widespread fear that an epidemic was starting. 

Centers for Disease Control medical technologist George Gorman (left) and Jim Feeley, examining culture plates from the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.

The CDC Launched an Unprecedented Investigation

By early September, the CDC was eyeing the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. The CDC pathologists were convinced that the mysterious outbreak was the result of a contaminant in the hotel environment, but they couldn’t immediately find the culprit. In a tremendous feat of investigation, the CDC scientists led by microbiologist Joseph McDade, by January of 1977, discovered a bacterium thriving in the hotel’s cooling tower. The bacteria then spread through the building via the hotel’s air ducts. The CDC named this bacterium Legionella pneumophilia and they dubbed the illness that it created, Legionnaires’ Disease. 

Were There Other Legionnaire Outbreaks Prior to 1976?

After the Legionella pneumophilia bacteria was discovered in the air conditioning ducts at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel and was determined to be the culprit in infecting the Legionnaires, the CDC decided to take a look at previous isolated outbreaks of pneumonia-like illnesses to see if the newly-discovered bacteria could have caused those outbreaks, too. They looked at a pneumonia outbreak at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC where sixteen people died and 78 were infected at this hospital in August of 1965. It was later determined that this outbreak was due to Legionnaires’ disease.

Legionnaires’ Disease Led to Changes

The 1976 outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease led to many changes. First were changes in building codes and air duct maintenance to prevent the growth and harboring of the Legionella pneumophilia bacteria. Next came changes within the CDC about how outbreaks are investigated and how pathogens are contained. Since the 1976 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, there have been a few other, smaller outbreaks in the United States but these were all quickly identified and contained. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.