The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History
By John M. Barry
Humankind likes to think it is in control and rests comfortable in that thought. When something unknown and uncontrollable strikes, panic ensues. Just that happened when influenza struck the world in 1918, a world already weary of the first total world war, a war that led to a near suspension of democracy in the United States as Woodrow Wilson and his administration prepared to enter the conflict. John Barry not only tells the story of a disease raging rampant across the U.S. and the entire world but how humankind’s own deadly squabbling and compulsion to control, restrict, and distort information contributed to worldwide panic and, probably, millions of unnecessary deaths. His is at once a tale of terror, inspiration, and caution. It’s one that readers should pay particular heed to in light of the demoralizing beating truth and honesty are taking today in American society.
To truly appreciate the 1918 influenza, readers need an understanding of biology, chemistry, public health practices, medical practices, and the political and social milieu of the period. While a lot to ask, what makes Barry’s history so brilliant is how he weaves all these disciplines into the story to the point where you acquire a basic working knowledge of virology and bacteriology, in addition to a greater appreciation of modern medical science.
Barry begins with the state of medical practice and education and scientific research a century before the great influenza attack. Indeed, what a sorry state it was with no standards in sight. Over time, though, and with great skill and insight, dedicated, curious, and exacting people wrought the kind of modern medical world familiar to us today. It arrived just in time to face off with the influenza plague. What will strike you in particular is just how small the research community was, concentrated in a few institutions in the U.S., especially Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) and a few men and a woman, among them William Welch, Simon Flexner, Oswald Avery, William Park, Anna Williams, and a handful of others. Little known today, except to those involved in medicine and research, you learn just what giants they were and how they contributed a modern life we take for granted today.
You can’t fathom influenza without understanding something of virology and bacteriology. Barry does an excellent job of explaining and illustrating how viruses and bacteria work and how researchers isolate these organisms and devise methods for combatting them. Concomitant with this knowledge is an understanding of public health policy and techniques, which Barry threads throughout the story.
In many ways, the early part of the 20th century proved a perfect breeding ground and killing field for influenza as the Great War caused great concentrations of soldiers in camps, ports, ships, and battlefields in less than healthful conditions. As readers will learn, the times accounted for an accelerated dissemination of the influenza virus and its mutations. What also contributed to the disease, especially its capacity to strike raw terror into the hearts of people so overpowering and crippling that sister would not help sister or brother brother, is that the American government, from Washington straight down to local districts, lied to the American people about the severity and cause of the health crisis, and enlisted the media of the day to participate, all in the name of patriotism and the drive to focus and marshal resources on entering and fighting the Great War. In other words, something we find ourselves confronted with again, manipulation of our free press. Along with from 50 to 100 million deaths, two other casualties of the Great Influenza were Truth and Trust.
If you have never read this book, there’s never been a better or more important to change that. Needless to say, highly recommended. w/c