Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918


It was the worst epidemic in this country's history, and the search for its cause is still one of science's most urgent quests.

It was 1918, the last year of World War 1. Thousands of men lived in the crowded army training camps that were scattered all across the United States. That spring, a strange flu struck the soldiers at a camp in the Midwest. Healthy young men went to the hospital complaining of sore throats and fevers. Within hours they...

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It was the worst epidemic in this country's history, and the search for its cause is still one of science's most urgent quests.

It was 1918, the last year of World War 1. Thousands of men lived in the crowded army training camps that were scattered all across the United States. That spring, a strange flu struck the soldiers at a camp in the Midwest. Healthy young men went to the hospital complaining of sore throats and fevers. Within hours they had suffocated, their skin taking on a terrible purplish hue.

The devastating flu spread like wildfire across the country, infecting soldiers and civilians alike. It killed more than half a million people in a matter of months, then disappeared as suddenly as it had come.

To this day, no one knows what caused a common flu to become so deadly, but scientists are still searching for answers. What they discover could save millions of lives if another common flu virus suddenly turns into a killer. In this riveting account, acclaimed nonfiction author David Getz tells young readers the story of the mysterious flu known as the Purple Death — the virus responsible for the worst epidemic in American history.

An illustrated overview of the onset, progress, and effects of the flu epidemic of 1918, which resulted in the deaths of more than half a million people

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature
With the same mysterious, intriguing style of his previous books about frozen mummies, the author tells a gripping story of the influenza pandemic of 1918 that infected two billion people. In one month alone, the worldwide spread of the disease killed more people that HIV did in its first ten years. He describes how it spread and the frantic search by scientists over the years for the causative organism and its mode of transmission. Simple explanations are given of viruses, how they are spread, and how vaccines work against them. Quoting top health officials, the book emphasizes the ongoing dangers of the spread of the flu and outbreaks of new strains. The fact that the virus that caused the pandemic in 1918 has not yet been isolated creates an interest in further study. The book has soft black-and-white illustrations that nicely complement old photographs and it also has an index and excellent bibliography. It is a useful book to emphasize that some diseases should always be considered dangerous to the world society. 2000, Henry Holt, $16.00. Ages 10 up. Reviewer: Elaine Wick
Whether the "Black Death," Spanish flu, Ebola virus, or HIV/AIDS, stories about the devastation wrought by epidemics and pandemics make fascinating, if frightening, reading. Getz provides an intriguing look at the human side of the mysterious disease that in the fall of 1918 killed more than half amillion people around the world, most of them healthy young men. Illustrated with riveting black-and-white photographs as well as haunting pencil sketches, this short and easily accessible book traces the desperate search for the cause of and cure for the flu. Especially intriguing are the descriptions of efforts to obtain "live" samples of the virus. Although efforts to coax samples of genetic information from the autopsy slides of soldiers who died of the 1918 flu have been successful, so far only 10 percent of the genetic puzzle has been uncovered. Vaccines have improved greatly during the past seventy-five years, but in many susceptible countries, mass immunization is extremely difficult. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control operate a surveillance program connecting 110 laboratories in more than 80 countries, constantly monitoring outbreaks of flu and assessing any new strains that might require different vaccines. Could such a pandemic occur again today? Scientific evidence seems to indicate that it is only a matter of time. Students doing reports or those who are fascinated by the topic of pandemics will find this text helpful and intriguing. The appearance of the book, typeface, and narrative style make it most suitable for junior high school students. Index. Illus. Photos. Biblio. VOYA CODES: 3Q 2P M J (Readable without serious defects; For the YA with aspecial interest in the subject; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2000, Henry Holt, 86p, Ages 12 to 15. Reviewer: Cindy Lombardo SOURCE: VOYA, April 2001 (Vol. 24, No.1)
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-This medical history begins by describing how the influenza of 1918 spread across the world, infecting 2 billion people and killing 20 to 40 million. Once symptoms began, death could take place within three hours, mostly from lack of oxygen that caused victims to turn purple when their lungs filled with blood due to the virus. The second half of the book is devoted to the efforts of scientists, once the pandemic subsided, to determine its cause. In 1918, no one had a microscope powerful enough to see a virus. Finding a sample of it was a challenge, and in 1951 scientists went to Alaska and Norway where diseased bodies were buried and preserved in permafrost. The author successfully relays the significance this epidemic had upon the world and the importance of continued study to prevent another occurrence. Black-and-white photographs enforce the reality of the crisis and soft, charcoal-pencil drawings capture the somber mood. The format of the book features large, inviting print with lots of white space on quality paper. The painstaking and heroic deeds scientists must take on in order to identify a disease and develop a cure will be interesting to budding scientists.-Jean Gaffney, Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library, Miamisburg, OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The title reflects the general tone of this study of the pandemic that killed half a million Americans in six months, and 20 to 40 million worldwide. After describing the disease's symptoms ("Delirious from lack of oxygen, these young men rolled and thrashed about on their beds and cots, moaning, mumbling, and spitting up blood"), the spread, and the frantic but ineffective efforts to control it, Getz (Life on Mars, 1997, etc.) chronicles scientists' long search for the specific cause—which involved much digging up of corpses and experiments with diseased tissue. Despite some recent breakthroughs, that search still continues for, as the author points out, though the 1976 scare turned out to be a false alarm and we are better prepared now than in 1918, new flu strains appear frequently, and we are all still potential sitting ducks for a deadly one. Period photos are interspersed with solemn, impressionistic art from McCarthy; an accessible bibliography will give a leg up to readers who want to know more. Combining cogent accounts both of a worldwide tragedy and some classic medical detective work, this is certain to please and to sober a wide audience. (Nonfiction. 9-11)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805057515
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
  • Publication date: 11/15/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 96
  • Age range: 7 - 10 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

David Getz is the award-winning author of the middle-grade novels Thin Air and Almost Famous, and the nonfiction books Life on Mars, Frozen Man and Frozen Girl. When not writing, Mr. Getz works as an elementary-school principal in New York City.

Peter McCarty is the Caldecott Honor-winning author and illustrator of Hondo and Fabian. He also teamed up with David Getz on Frozen Man, Frozen Girl, and Life on Mars. Mr. McCarty lives with his wife and two children in Upstate New York.

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Table of Contents

Picnic 3
War Fever 10
Even the Circus Stopped Touring 17
The Hunt Begins 27
Stop What You Are Doing! Make More of Me! 33
Alaska 38
The Death of Private David Lewis 49
The Longest Walk of Her Life 56
A Note Left Behind 65
Epilogue: Waiting for the Flu 72
Bibliography 77
Index 81
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2008

    A reviewer

    I think this book was a well written story about the flu of 1918-1919.. If I had to rate this book on a scale from 1 to 10 it would be a 9. My mother has also read this book and she enjoyed it very much.

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