Retired Air Force Captain Ray Brennan, 61, a tall, graying man who loved to collect seashells, had been having heart trouble for some years. But he was the bookkeeper of American Legion Post #42 in Towanda, Pa., and, as his sister Maize Travis said, "All he lived for was these conventions." So Brennan set off for Philadelphia last month to attend a state Legion conventionan affair traditionally devoted to parading and merrymaking. He came home "tired," his sister recalled, and three days later he had chest pains, a fever and difficulty in breathing. "He didn't want to go to the hospital," said Mrs. Travis. "We had to fight him all the way." That very night, with his lungs filling with a bloody froth, Brennan died of an apparent heart attack.
That was on July 27, and Brennan was the first. Three days later, in Clearfield, Pa., Legionnaire Frank Aveni, 60, died in much the same way. And so did three other Pennsylvania veterans. On Sunday, Aug. 1, there were six more, ranging in age from 39 to 82, scattered in towns all around the state. All of them had attended the Legion convention that was held in Philadelphia from July 21 to 24, and all had the same signs and symptomsheadaches, chest pains, high fevers and lung congestion.
The first person to see a pattern in the outbreak of illness seems to have been Dr. Ernest Campbell, a physician in Bloomsburg, Pa., who noticed that three patients with the same symptoms had been to a convention together. He called health authorities to arrange for tests but was told that the state laboratory was closed for the weekend.
On Saturday, July 31, the Legion's state adjutant, Edward Hoak, 52, learned that eight Legionnaires had developed chest pains and fevers in the week since the convention and that a ninth had died. The bad news soon grew from a trickle to a torrent. Next day a note from his secretary informed him that another Legionnaire had died; a colleague telephoned to report yet another death. Calls to other Legion officials turned up still more conventiongoers in hospitals.
Hoak went to bed that Sunday night without reaching state health authorities. On Monday morning, they called him. Having heard that several Legionnaires had entered a Williamsport hospital with symptoms of something that soon came to be known as "Legion Disease," an official in the state's division of communicable diseases asked Hoak if he was aware of an unusual number of illnesses among his colleagues. Hoak's reply confirmed the worst: there was an invisible, impersonal mass killer on the loose. The knowledge rekindled, despite all the advances of modern medicine, humanity's ancient memories of epidemics beyond understanding or control. Even as the first waves of shock and fear began to spread through Pennsylvania and beyond, the search for the killer began in one of the most intensive efforts at medical sleuthing ever undertaken in the U.S.