The Great Influenza by John M. Barry


The Great Influenza is “The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” i.e. the Spanish Influenza, which killed as many as 100 million people worldwide over a period of 24 weeks in 1918 and 1919 during the height of World War I.

This book is indeed epic in scope and it took me quite a while to get through it.  That wasn’t because it was tedious or boring, but only because of the massive amount of information it contains.  It’s not a book to be consumed quickly, but must be digested in small amounts, bit by bit.  Always fascinating and immensely educational, The Great Influenza is two parts history lesson and one part crash-course in bacteriology.  Sandwiched between biographies of some of the most influential scientific researchers during an exciting period of world-wide medical enlightenment is a detailed account of the epidemic’s destructive, murderous path from its probable origin point in rural Kansas to army cantonments throughout the country and then with American soldiers to France, England and on to the rest of the world.

With the current swine flu outbreak it was particularly interesting to learn about the nature of viruses and the influenza virus in particular.  The book offers a detailed layperson understanding of how influenza can be transferred from animals to humans and also how and why some strains are so mild and others so deadly.  It also explains why researchers who were so frantically looking for ways to control the disease in 1918 were having trouble.  They were unable at that time to even identify the pathogen and cutting corners while performing research experiments in an effort to develop an anti-serum more quickly did not help.

Other interesting facts learned from this book:

**Politics played far too great a role in the number of fatalities.  Because of the war, politicians were reluctant to even admit the existence of the epidemic for fear that it would lower morale.  Although local governments in large cities were advised to enforce laws against public meetings, most refused to comply and newspapers did not run warnings or advice until late in the epidemic.

**The misnomer “Spanish Flu” was given to the disease because Spain was the first country to have newspapers running headlines announcing the epidemic.  They were not yet involved in the war and therefore were not censoring their media.

**The 1918 influenza epidemic killed an unusually high percentage of healthy, young people between the ages of 21 and 40, which is typically the age group with the greatest survival rate.  The reason is that this particular strain of influenza was so virulent that the healthiest immune systems would often launch such aggressive attacks that they would essentially destroy the victim’s lungs and/or heart.

**The influenza may have indirectly been responsible for events leading up to the start of World War II.  While in France negotiating peace terms with representatives from Britain, France and Italy, Woodrow Wilson became ill with influenza.  He was bedridden for days, and though he recovered, the illness appeared to have altered his mental capabilities (minor brain damage was later proven to be a common side effect of severe influenza).  He suddenly and inexplicably gave in to all of France’s demands which included many harsh penalties against Germany and set the stage for things to come.  Wilson never fully recovered and for the rest of his term, many presidential decisions were made by his wife and personal physician.

I only wish this book could have contained an afterword addressing the recent H1N1 influenza strain.  It’s possible that information may be added at a later time since I think there was an afterword added regarding the avian flu in an edition published after the version I read.  It would be interesting to know the specifics of the swine flu’s makeup and how it compares to the other epidemics since 1918.  If the 1918 flu is any indication of how things could play out, the mild outbreak that we saw this spring could be followed by a much more severe outbreak this fall.

I highly recommend this book with the warning that it may take a while to get through.  If you’re like me, you may want some nice, easy fiction to read at the same time.

And as a coincidental anecdote, an older gentleman stopped in the store a week ago.  He was from Michigan and was visiting his mother here in Floyd.  Without mentioning that I was reading this book he told me that his mother, who is now in her late 90s, took him to a family graveyard and showed him the row of tombstones which were all marked with dates within the same couple of weeks in 1918 — all victims of the influenza.

The Great Influenza is available at noteBooks in trade papaerback for $16.00.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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