Ottilie Lundgren: The Unexpected Victim Of An Anthrax Attack

Editor's note: A prior version of this article said Lundgren lived in Oxford, England, but she lived in Oxford, Connecticut. 

Ottilie Lundgren was one of 22 victims of a 2001 anthrax attack — but the way she was contaminated was completely unexpected, according to the Hartford Courant. A new Netflix documentary, "The Anthrax Attacks," revisits the uncertainty and panic of one of the largest FBI investigations ever, as well as the numerous victims who were impacted.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while you might know of anthrax as a plain white powder, it's actually a highly dangerous bacteria. Since anthrax is often found in soil, it tends to make farm animals sick. But people can still be susceptible to anthrax spores, which can quickly multiply inside the body and create toxins. The Hartford Courant reports that anthrax is so dangerous that even a single spore can sicken or kill a person. And per Mayo Clinic, once inhaled, anthrax can cause flu-like symptoms, including coughing up blood, shock, and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, breathing in the bacteria is the most serious way to contract anthrax — and it is almost always fatal.

She wasn't the intended target of the attack

Ottilie Lundgren was an innocent victim in a series of anthrax attacks that targeted American lawmakers and media outlets, per NPR. One week after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, numerous letters containing anthrax bacteria were mailed out to news outlets and members of Congress. But anthrax spores escaped the envelopes while in transit, harming at least 17 people unintentionally — two postal workers in Washington D.C. died from their exposure to it, while employees at NBC and CBS were also harmed. Ottilie Lundgren, age 94, was the fifth person to die from her exposure to the toxin.

The first anthrax-filled letters were sent out in September, but it took months for the full scale of the damage to be revealed (via ​​the United States Department of Justice). On October 9, 2001, Lundgren's mail was processed along with letters going to Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle, which eventually went to Connecticut (per PBS). Daschle's letter was opened six days later at the senator's home by one of his aides.

Ottilie Lundgren didn't know how she could have gotten so sick

Hartford Courant reports that Ottilie Lundgren of Oxford, Connecticut, was sorting through her mail one day in November 2001, holding the letters close to her face to see them better, when a piece of junk mail containing a single anthrax spore contaminated her. She didn't know that this batch of mail had traveled through Trenton, New Jersey, and was contaminated by the other anthrax letters. 

Lundgren already had respiratory health issues, which the bacteria exacerbated. She kept telling her niece that she was incredibly sick and didn't know how she could have wound up that way. Her niece took her to the hospital on November 16, 2001. According to the Yale School of Medicine, Lundgren was sick for days before doctors thought about testing her for anthrax exposure, since it is so rare. When the tests came back positive, she had to be isolated. Her hospital room was subsequently visited by dozens of officials from the FBI, health department, and police department (via Hartford Courant).

Since they knew she'd been the victim of an anthrax attack, officials cleaned every inch of Lundgren's home while she was in the hospital. But Lungren tragically died from her exposure to the deadly bacteria and had to be cremated to avoid infecting anyone else. According to PBS, no additional anthrax was found on Lundgren's property, and the governor clarified that Lundgren was not a target but was a "victim of cross-contamination."