At the height of WWI, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. John M. Barry has written a new afterword for this edition that brings us up to speed on the terrible threat of the avian flu and suggest ways in which we might head off another flu pandemic.
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Read an Excerpt
The Great War had brought Paul Lewis into the navy in 1918 as a lieutenant commander, but he never seemed quite at ease when in his uniform. It never seemed to fit quite right, or to sit quite right, and he was often flustered and failed to respond properly when sailors saluted him.
Yet he was every bit a warrior, and he hunted death.
When he found it he confronted it, challenged it, tried to pin it in place like a lepidopterist pinning down a butterfly, so he could then dissect it piece by piece, analyze it, and find a way to confound it. He did so often enough that the risks he took became routine.
Still, death had never appeared to him as it did now, in mid- September 1918. Row after row of men confronted him in the hospital ward, many of them bloody and dying in some new and awful way.
He had been called here to solve a mystery that dumbfounded the clinicians. For Lewis was a scientist. Although a physician he had never practiced on a patient. Instead, a member of the very first generation of American medical scientists, he had spent his life in the laboratory. He had already built an extraordinary career, an international reputation, and he was still young enough to be seen as just coming into his prime.
A decade earlier, working with his mentor at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, he had proved that a virus caused polio, a discovery still considered a landmark achievement in the history of virology. He had then developed a vaccine that protected monkeys from polio with nearly 100 percent effectiveness.
That and other successes had won him the position of founding head of the Henry Phipps Institute, a research institute associated with the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1917 he had been chosen for the great honor of giving the annual Harvey Lecture. It seemed only the first of many honors that would come his way. Today, the children of two prominent scientists who knew him then and who crossed paths with many Nobel laureates say their fathers each told them that Lewis was the smartest man they had ever met.
The clinicians now looked to him to explain the violent symptoms these sailors presented. The blood that covered so many of them did not come from wounds, at least not from steel or explosives that had torn away limbs. Most of the blood had come from nosebleeds. A few sailors had coughed the blood up. Others had bled from their ears. Some coughed so hard that autopsies would later show they had torn apart abdominal muscles and rib cartilage. And many of the men writhed in agony or delirium; nearly all those able to communicate complained of headache, as if someone were hammering a wedge into their skulls just behind the eyes, and body aches so intense they felt like bones breaking. A few were vomiting. Finally the skin of some of the sailors had turned unusual colors; some showed just a tinge of blue around their lips or fingertips, but a few looked so dark one could not tell easily if they were Caucasian or Negro. They looked almost black.
Only once had Lewis seen a disease that in any way resembled this. Two months earlier, members of the crew of a British ship had been taken by ambulance from a sealed dock to another Philadelphia hospital and placed in isolation. There many of that crew had died. At autopsy their lungs had resembled those of men who had died from poison gas or pneumonic plague, a more virulent form of bubonic plague.
Whatever those crewmen had had, it had not spread. No one else had gotten sick.
But the men in the wards now not only puzzled Lewis. They had to have chilled him with fear also, fear both for himself and for what this disease could do. For whatever was attacking these sailors was not only spreading, it was spreading explosively.
And it was spreading despite a well-planned, concerted effort to contain it. This same disease had erupted ten days earlier at a navy facility in Boston. Lieutenant Commander Milton Rosenau at the Chelsea Naval Hospital there had certainly communicated to Lewis, whom he knew well, about it. Rosenau too was a scientist who had chosen to leave a Harvard professorship for the navy when the United States entered the war, and his textbook on public health was called “The Bible” by both army and navy military doctors.
Philadelphia navy authorities had taken Rosenau’s warnings seriously, especially since a detachment of sailors had just arrived from Boston, and they had made preparations to isolate any ill sailors should an outbreak occur. They had been confident that isolation would control it.
Yet four days after that Boston detachment arrived, nineteen sailors in Philadelphia were hospitalized with what looked like the same disease. Despite their immediate isolation and that of everyone with whom they had had contact, eighty-seven sailors were hospitalized the next day. They and their contacts were again isolated. But two days later, six hundred men were hospitalized with this strange disease. The hospital ran out of empty beds, and hospital staff began falling ill. The navy then began sending hundreds more sick sailors to a civilian hospital. And sailors and civilian workers were moving constantly between the city and navy facilities, as they had in Boston. Meanwhile, personnel from Boston, and now Philadelphia, had been and were being sent throughout the country as well.
That had to chill Lewis, too.
Lewis had visited the first patients, taken blood, urine, and sputum samples, done nasal washings, and swabbed their throats. Then he had come back again to repeat the process of collecting samples and to study the symptoms for any further clues. In his laboratory he and everyone under him poured their energies into growing and identifying whatever pathogen was making the men sick. He needed to find the pathogen. He needed to find the cause of the disease. And even more he needed to make a curative serum or a preventive vaccine.
Lewis loved the laboratory more than he loved anyone or anything. His work space was crammed; it looked like a thicket of icicles(test tubes in racks, stacked petri dishes, pipettes)but it warmed him, gave him as much and perhaps more comfort than did his home and family. But he did not love working like this. The pressure to find an answer did not bother him; much of his polio research had been conducted in the midst of an epidemic so extreme that New York City had required people to obtain passes to travel. What did bother him was the need to abandon good science. To succeed in preparing either a vaccine or serum, he would have to make a series of guesses based on at best inconclusive results, and each guess would have to be right.
He had already made one guess. If he did not yet know precisely what caused the disease, nor how or whether he could prevent it or cure it, he believed he knew what the disease was.
He believed it was influenza, although an influenza unlike any known before.
The lowest estimate of the pandemic’s worldwide death toll is twenty-one million, in a world with a population less than one-third today’s. That estimate comes from a contemporary study of the disease and newspapers have often cited it since, but it is almost certainly wrong. Epidemiologists today estimate that influenza likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.
Yet even that number understates the horror of the disease, a horror contained in other data. Normally influenza chiefly kills the elderly and infants, but in the 1918 pandemic roughly half of those who died were young men and women in the prime of their life, in their twenties and thirties. Harvey Cushing, then a brilliant young surgeon who would go on to great fame(and who himself fell desperately ill with influenza and never fully recovered from what was likely a complication)would call these victims “doubly dead in that they died so young.”
One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.
And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.
The influenza pandemic resembled both of those scourges in other ways also. Like AIDS, it killed those with the most to live for. And as priests had done in the bubonic plague, in 1918, even in Philadelphia, as modern a city as existed in the world, priests would drive horse- drawn wagons down the streets, calling upon those behind doors shut tight in terror to bring out their dead.
It is also a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and of how one changes the way one thinks, of how amidst near-utter chaos a few men sought the coolness of contemplation, the utter calm that precedes not philosophizing but grim, determined action.
For the influenza pandemic that erupted in 1918 was the first great collision between nature and modern science. It was the first great collision between a natural force and a society that included individuals who refused either to submit to that force or to simply call upon divine intervention to save themselves from it, individuals who instead were determined to confront this force directly, with a developing technology and with their minds.
In the United States, the story is particularly one of a handful of extraordinary people, of whom Paul Lewis is one. These were men and some very few women who, far from being backward, had already developed the fundamental science upon which much of today’s medicine is based. They had already developed vaccines and antitoxins and techniques still in use. They had already pushed, in some cases, close to the edge of knowledge today.
In a way, these researchers had spent much of their lives preparing for the confrontation that occurred in 1918 not only in general but, for a few of them at least, quite specifically. In every war in American history so far, disease had killed more soldiers than combat. In many wars throughout history war had spread disease. The leaders of American research had anticipated that a major epidemic of some kind would erupt during the Great War. They had prepared for it as much as it was possible to prepare. Then they waited for it to strike.
Medicine is not yet and may never be fully a science(the idiosyncrasies, physical and otherwise, of individual patients and doctors may prevent that)but, up to a few decades before World War I, the practice of medicine had remained quite literally almost unchanged from the time of Hippocrates more than two thousand years earlier. Then, in Europe first, medical science changed and, finally, the practice of medicine changed.
But even after European medicine changed, medicine in the United States did not. In research and education especially, American medicine lagged far behind, and that made practice lag as well.
While for decades European medical schools had, for example, required students to have a solid background in chemistry, biology, and other sciences, as late as 1900, it was more difficult to get into a respectable American college than into an American medical school. At least one hundred U.S. medical schools would accept any man(but not woman)willing to pay tuition; at most 20 percent of the schools required even a high school diploma for admission(much less any academic training in science)and only a single medical school required its students to have a college degree. Nor, once students entered, did American schools necessarily make up for any lack of scientific background. Many schools bestowed a medical degree upon students who simply attended lectures and passed examinations; in some, students could fail several courses, never touch a single patient, and still get a medical degree.
Not until late(very late)in the nineteenth century, did a virtual handful of leaders of American medical science begin to plan a revolution that transformed American medicine from the most backward in the developed world into the best in the world.
William James, who was a friend of(and whose son would work for)several of these men, wrote that the collecting of a critical mass of men of genius could make a whole civilization “vibrate and shake.” These men intended to, and would, shake the world.
To do so required not only intelligence and training but real courage, the courage to relinquish all support and all authority. Or perhaps it required only recklessness.
In Faust, Goethe wrote, “Tis writ, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ I Pause, to wonder what is here inferred. The Word I cannot set supremely high: A new translation I will try. I read, if by the spirit, I am taught, This sense, ‘In the beginning was the Thought. . . .’”
Upon “the Word” rested authority, stability, and law; “the Thought” roiled and ripped apart and created without knowledge or concern of what it would create.
Shortly before the Great War began, the men who so wanted to transform American medicine succeeded. They created a system that could produce people capable of thinking in a new way, capable of challenging the natural order. They, together with the first generation of scientists they had trained(Paul Lewis and his few peers)formed a cadre who stood on alert, hoping against but expecting and preparing for the eruption of an epidemic.
When it came, they placed their lives in the path of the disease and applied all their knowledge and powers to defeat it. As it overwhelmed them, they concentrated on constructing the body of knowledge necessary to eventually triumph. For the scientific knowledge that ultimately came out of the influenza pandemic pointed directly(and still points)to much that lies in medicine’s future.
The import was not lost on the nation. Many newspapers, including the New York Times, had reporters covering this event. After it, they would print Huxley’s address in full.
For the nation was then, as it so often has been, at war with itself; in fact it was engaged in different wars simultaneously, each being waged on several fronts, wars that ran along the fault lines of modern America.
One involved expansion and race. In the Dakotas, George Armstrong Custer had just led the Seventh Cavalry to its destruction at the hands of primitive savages resisting encroachment of the white man. The day Huxley spoke, the front page of the Washington Star reported that “the hostile Sioux, well fed and well armed” had just carried out “a massacre of miners.”
In the South a far more important but equally savage war was being waged as white Democrats sought “redemption” from Reconstruction in anticipation of the presidential election. Throughout the South “rifle clubs,” “saber clubs,” and “rifle teams” of former Confederates were being organized into infantry and cavalry units. Already accounts of intimidation, beatings, whippings, and murder directed against Republicans and blacks had surfaced. After the murder of three hundred black men in a single Mississippi county, one man, convinced that words from the Democrats’ own mouths would convince the world of their design, pleaded with the New York Times, “For God’s sake publish the testimony of the Democrats before the Grand Jury.”
Voting returns had already begun to come in(there was no single national election day)and two months later Democrat Samuel Tilden would win the popular vote by a comfortable margin. But he would never take office as president. Instead the Republican secretary of war would threaten to “force a reversal” of the vote, federal troops with fixed bayonets would patrol Washington, and southerners would talk of reigniting the Civil War. That crisis would ultimately be resolved through an extraconstitutional special committee and a political understanding: Republicans would discard the voting returns of three states(Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina)and seize a single disputed electoral vote in Oregon to keep the presidency in the person of Rutherford B. Hayes. But they also would withdraw all federal troops from the South and cease intervening in southern affairs, leaving the Negroes there to fend for themselves.
The war involving the Hopkins was more muted but no less profound. The outcome would help define one element of the character of the nation: the extent to which the nation would accept or reject modern science and, to a lesser degree, how secular it would become, how godly it would remain.
Precisely at 11:00 a.m., a procession of people advanced upon the stage. First came Daniel Coit Gilman, president of the Hopkins, and on his arm was Huxley. Following in single file came the governor, the mayor, and other notables. As they took their seats the conversations in the audience quickly died away, replaced by expectancy of a kind of declaration of war.
Of medium height and middle age(though he already had iron-gray hair and nearly white whiskers)and possessed of what was described as “a pleasant face,” Huxley did not look the warrior. But he had a warrior’s ruthlessness. His dicta included the pronouncement: “The foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying.” A brilliant scientist, later president of the Royal Society, he advised investigators, “Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.” He also believed that learning had purpose, stating, “The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”
To act upon the world himself, he became a proselytizer for faith in human reason. By 1876 he had become the world’s foremost advocate of the theory of evolution and of science itself. Indeed, H. L. Mencken said that “it was he, more than any other man, who worked that great change in human thought which marked the Nineteenth Century.” Now President Gilman gave a brief and simple introduction. Then Professor Huxley began to speak.
Normally he lectured on evolution, but today he was speaking on a subject of even greater magnitude. He was speaking about the process of intellectual inquiry. The Hopkins was to be unlike any other university in America. Aiming almost exclusively at the education of graduate students and the furtherance of science, it was intended by its trustees to rival not Harvard or Yale(neither of them considered worthy of emulation)but the greatest institutions of Europe, and particularly Germany. Perhaps only in the United States, a nation ever in the act of creating itself, could such an institution come into existence both so fully formed in concept and already so renowned, even before the foundation of a single building had been laid.
“His voice was low, clear and distinct,” reported one listener. “The audience paid the closest attention to every word which fell from the lecturer’s lips, occasionally manifesting their approval by applause.” Said another, “Professor Huxley’s method is slow, precise, and clear, and he guards the positions which he takes with astuteness and ability. He does not utter anything in the reckless fashion which conviction sometimes countenances and excuses, but rather with the deliberation that research and close inquiry foster.”
Huxley commended the bold goals of the Hopkins, expounded upon his own theories of education(theories that soon informed those of William James and John Dewey)and extolled the fact that the existence of the Hopkins meant “finally, that neither political nor ecclesiastical sectarianism” would interfere with the pursuit of the truth.
In truth, Huxley’s speech, read a century and a quarter later, seems remarkably tame. Yet Huxley and the entire ceremony left an impression in the country deep enough that Gilman would spend years trying to edge away from it, even while simultaneously trying to fulfill the goals Huxley applauded.
For the ceremony’s most significant word was one not spoken: not a single participant uttered the word “God” or made any reference to the Almighty. This spectacular omission scandalized those who worried about or rejected a mechanistic and necessarily godless view of the universe. And it came in an era in which American universities had nearly two hundred endowed chairs of theology and fewer than five in medicine, an era in which the president of Drew University had said that, after much study and experience, he had concluded that only ministers of the Gospel should be college professors.
The omission also served as a declaration: the Hopkins would pursue the truth, no matter to what abyss it led.
In no area did the truth threaten so much as in the study of life. In no area did the United States lag behind the rest of the world so much as in its study of the life sciences and medicine. And in that area in particular the influence of the Hopkins would be immense.
By 1918, as America marched into war, the nation had come not only to rely upon the changes wrought largely, though certainly not entirely, by men associated with the Hopkins; the United States Army had mobilized these men into a special force, focused and disciplined, ready to hurl themselves at an enemy.
Science and religion in fact part ways over the first question, what each can know. Religion, and to some extent philosophy, believes it can know, or at least address, the question, “Why?”
For most religions the answer to this question ultimately comes down to the way God ordered it. Religion is inherently conservative; even one proposing a new God only creates a new order.
The question “why” is too deep for science. Science instead believes it can only learn “how” something occurs.
The revolution of modern science and especially medical science began as science not only focused on this answer to “What can I know?” but more importantly, changed its method of inquiry, changed its answer to “How can I know it?”
This answer involves not simply academic pursuits; it affects how a society governs itself, its structure, how its citizens live. If a society does set Goethe’s “Word . . . supremely high,” if it believes that it knows the truth and that it need not question its beliefs, then that society is more likely to enforce rigid decrees, and less likely to change. If it leaves room for doubt about the truth, it is more likely to be free and open.
In the narrower context of science, the answer determines how individuals explore nature(how one does science). And the way one goes about answering a question, one’s methodology, matters as much as the question itself. For the method of inquiry underlies knowledge and often determines what one discovers: how one pursues a question often dictates, or at least limits, the answer.
Indeed, methodology matters more than anything else. Methodology subsumes, for example, Thomas Kuhn’s well-known theory of how science advances. Kuhn gave the word “paradigm” wide usage by arguing that at any given point in time, a particular paradigm, a kind of perceived truth, dominates the thinking in any science. Others have applied his concept to nonscientific fields as well.
According to Kuhn, the prevailing paradigm tends to freeze progress, indirectly by creating a mental obstacle to creative ideas and directly by, for example, blocking research funds from going to truly new ideas, especially if they conflict with the paradigm. He argues that nonetheless researchers eventually find what he calls “anomalies” that do not fit the paradigm. Each one erodes the foundation of the paradigm, and when enough accrue to undermine it, the paradigm collapses. Scientists then cast about for a new paradigm that explains both the old and new facts.
But the process(and progress)of science is more fluid than Kuhn’s concept suggests. It moves more like an amoeba, with soft and ill- defined edges. More importantly, method matters. Kuhn’s own theory recognizes that the propelling force behind the movement from one explanation to another comes from the methodology, from what we call the scientific method. But he takes as an axiom that those who ask questions constantly test existing hypotheses. In fact, with a methodology that probes and tests hypotheses(regardless of any paradigm)progress is inevitable. Without such a methodology, progress becomes merely coincendental.
Yet the scientific method has not always been used by those who inquire into nature. Through most of known history, investigators trying to penetrate the natural world, penetrate what we call science, relied upon the mind alone, reason alone. These investigators believed that they could know a thing if their knowledge followed logically from what they considered a sound premise. In turn they based their premises chiefly on observation.
This commitment to logic coupled with man’s ambition to see the entire world in a comprehensive and cohesive way actually imposed blinders on science in general and on medicine in particular. The chief enemy of progress, ironically, became pure reason. And for the bulk of two and a half millennia(twenty-five hundred years)the actual treatment of patients by physicians made almost no progress at all.
One cannot blame religion or superstition for this lack of progress. In the West, beginning at least five hundred years before the birth of Christ, medicine was largely secular. While Hippocratic healers(the various Hippocratic texts were written by different people)did run temples and accept pluralistic explanations for disease, they pushed for material explanations.
Hippocrates himself was born in approximately 460 b.c. On the Sacred Disease, one of the more famous Hippocratic texts and one often attributed to him directly, even mocked theories that attributed epilepsy to the intervention of gods. He and his followers advocated precise observation, then theorizing. As the texts stated, “For a theory is a composite memory of things apprehended with sense perception.” “But conclusions which are merely verbal cannot bear fruit.” “I approve of theorizing also if it lays its foundation in incident, and deduces its conclusion in accordance with phenomena.”
But if such an approach sounds like that of a modern investigator, a modern scientist, it lacked two singularly important elements.
This failure to probe nature was to some extent understandable. To dissect a human body then was inconceivable. But the authors of the Hippocratic texts did not test their conclusions and theories. A theory must make a prediction to be useful or scientific(ultimately it must say, If this, then that)and testing that prediction is the single most important element of modern methodology. Once that prediction is tested, it must advance another one for testing. It can never stand still.
Those who wrote the Hippocratic texts, however, observed passively and reasoned actively. Their careful observations noted mucus discharges, menstrual bleeding, watery evacuations in dysentery, and they very likely observed blood left to stand, which over time separates into several layers, one nearly clear, one of somewhat yellowy serum, one of darker blood. Based on these observations, they hypothesized that there were four kinds of bodily fluids, or “humours”: blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile. (This terminology survives today in the phrase “humoral immunity,” which refers to elements of the immune system, such as antibodies, that circulate in the blood.)
This hypothesis made sense, comported with observations, and could explain many symptoms. It explained, for example, that coughs were caused by the flow of phlegm to the chest. Observations of people coughing up phlegm certainly supported this conclusion.
In a far broader sense, the hypothesis also conformed to the ways in which the Greeks saw nature: they observed four seasons, four aspects of the environment(cold, hot, wet, and dry)and four elements(earth, air, fire, and water).
Medicine waited six hundred years for the next major advance, for Galen, but Galen did not break from these teachings; he systematized them, perfected them. Galen claimed, “I have done as much for medicine as Trajan did for the Roman Empire when he built the bridges and roads through Italy. It is I, and I alone, who have revealed the true path of medicine. It must be admitted that Hippocrates already staked out this path. . . . He prepared the way, but I have made it possible.”
Excerpted from "The Great Influenza"
Copyright © 2005 John M. Barry.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsPrologue
Part I: The Warriors
Part II: The Swarm
Part III: The Tinderbox
Part IV: It Begins
Part V: Explosion
Part VI: The Pestilence
Part VII: The Race
Part VIII: The Tolling Of The Bell
Part IX: Lingerer
Part X: Endgame
What People are Saying About This
"Monumental... powerfully intelligent... not just a masterful narrative... but also an authoritative and disturbing morality tale." —Chicago Tribune
"Easily our fullest, richest, most panoramic history of the subject." —The New York Times Book Review
"Hypnotizing, horrifying, energetic, lucid prose..." —Providence Observer
"A sobering account of the 1918 flu epidemic, compelling and timely. —The Boston Globe
"History brilliantly written... The Great Influenza is a masterpiece." —Baton Rouge Advocate
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Talk about relevant books for our time. This one is most current and very topical. Of course the interesting thing about influenza outbreaks is how much terror they create in people along with the unfortunate death and disablement that the pandemics leave in their wake. This well-researched work by author Barry provides an interesting and informative journey through the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 1918 and 1919. Gee, that is the same virus that is suspected in the current "swine flu" outbreak. This author plods along from the beginning of the 1918 outbreak, with its suspected origination in the midWest (USA). All the medical researchers and many government health leaders are briefly profiled along with clear explanations of the virus and its workings, even us laymen readers can understand. Most shocking in this story is the all-consuming effort by the US government to gear the country up for fighting the Germans in World War I. Censorship, stupidity, hate, ignorance and numerous other factors play into the nation led by President Wilson that made this outbreak much more devastating than it should have been allowed to become. It is estimated that almost 50 Million people around the world succumbed to the virus. One is shocked by the medical and political behaviors that the author presents. This is must reading for a proper understanding of how virus and man live together and have lived together for probably thousands of years. Finally, I must comment on the important fact as to why this flu (and the current one) proved so fatal to young people (usually aged 19 to 35 years, their prime years). Do not be shocked to learn that it is our own body's strong immune systems (strongest in that age group) that in its fight against the H1N1 virus literally tore the person's internal body parts apart resulting in the high mortality rate. The virus killed by causing a massive immune reaction. I found this to be the most tantalizing bit of information presented in this tome. That and the fact that fear of flu pandemic is what we have to look forward to in the next attack. Maybe in the spring? Good luck.
For every fiction novel I read, I read at least three historical books. Unlike so many others, this book doesn't focus on war, politics, or corruption, it focuses on a sickness and the devastation it caused. From the history of medical science in America to the details of the death and sorrow of millions around the world, this book covers it all in great detail. I've read and re-read parts, simply because it's fascinating!
I picked this book up looking for -- strangely enough-- something quick and easy. Instead I found what I regard as a brilliant book with a compelling narrative. It takes on a complex and all-too-relevant subject-- what with threats from both bioterrorism and pandemic influenza-- and addresses it in a way that not only makes the science about infectious disease and immunology clear, but somehow manages to do so in page-turner fashion. Its insights and analysis go well beyond the 1918 pandemic itself. They get deep into how you do science, and how politics and the media, and society for that matter, function under enormous pressure. I am frankly puzzled by some other reviewers' comments that they can't follow the personalities. I found them fascinating, and a valuable addition that really helped me understand what was going on. A great book. Now onto Barry's other books.
I've enjoyed this book and found it very interesting. Before reading this book I don't recall ever hearing of the influenza pandemic of 1918, and I had no idea of it's severity. I think everyone would benefit from a read, since this is a subject with application for modern times and the future. Coming from someone in the medical field, prior medical knowledge may be helpful in reading this book, but unlike others, I do not feel that a medical background is a prerequisite. Barry does a great job of describing immunology and clinical symptoms in terms that the general public would find easy to understand, so do not be intimidated. The only recommendation I have would be to skip Part I 'the first five chapters' 'The Warriors.' It reads like a collection of biographies about the various individuals involved in the medical community at the time.
I enjoyed the book - at times it was a little more technical than I would want, but if you get past that, it's an excellent read. Timely since the swine flu outbreak. Amazing what medical staff and media can do during an outbreak to downplay something so serious. So many people died during this influenza, that didn't need to die. I really liked the book overall, and would recommend it.
This book was fast paced at times, somewhat slow at others, however very detailed and informative throughout. If you're looking for a book, solely on disease, death, and the stats they produce, this book may not be for you. If you would like to understand the HOW and WHY coupled with history, a grim one at that than don't hesitate to pick this one up. One may find it advantagous to start with the authors acknowledgments to get a better idea of what direction he was headed in.
Great detail, reads like a graduate project gone bad for the first 200 or so pages. The fascinating part is when he starts describing the detail and symptoms of the disease. A wealth of knowledge masked in an ocean of words. KEEP READING ...
There were parts that were very interesting such as the discriptions of the diseases, however the rest of the book only talked about people who were in some way affiliated with the discovery of a vaccination for influenza. The accounts of these people were completely irrelevent to the subject matter, going into minute details such as their marital status, their eating habits, and their overall happiness. Thus had these irrelevant parts been expunged, the book would have been half as long and twice as interesting.
Well, I was forced to read this book for school in Ohio. I thought it will be fantastic but it was sure boring... :S Read this book if you want to be a doctor or a nurse someday, but its not something you want to read it over the summer
Mr. Barry has the wonderful ability to build excitement and suspense even with historical medical information. Extemely well written, he is able to develop the story while letting the reader get inside the minds of the doctors, scientists, politicians and victims of the pandemic. An important story that should never be forgotten.
Just consider for a moment an outbreak of flu like influenza in let¿s say for the fun of it, Haskell, Kansas. That¿s right Haskell, Kansas, in Middle America. And then let¿s imagine it spreads in days, weeks and less than a month around the world killing as many as 100 Million people. People, who wake up, go to work and die before they come home at night. And you say this can not happen as the government must have a plan, they and the media will give people instructions, keep them out of harms way. But just what if the President of the United States is so distracted on his winning a global war for democracy that he ignores the consequences.Well you say the Media will surly see this as the news story of the day and the press will tell it in a fair and balanced way. But no, the press is censored by the war hawks, no news that undermines national moral can be published. Even Congressman can be thrown in jail for questioning the Presidents war policy. Well enough of this, I have teased you enough. Yet all this happened in 1918 and it is one amazing sequence of events. Barry¿s book begins with a description of the medical profession in the late 1800s and on a small group of scientist (yes, those nasty scientists) who speculate that germs cause disease. This theory leads to an amazing revolution in medical education and Barry focuses on a small group of doctors who create with John D. Rockefeller¿s support the John Hopkins University Medical School. Barry bookends his book with this medical story and the center of the book is the events of the spreading Influenza killing the strongest and youngest first and fastest. I found he book fascinating if not exactly entertaining. There are parts that are not real page turners but all of it very educational. I wish the narrative could have focused more on one point of view that would have held the narrative together. But with real events that is not always possible so Barry gives us multiple takes, multiple characters to identify with in support of an over objective. It can, and most likely, will happen again.
so many lessons for today.
Very dense. Some parts (the history of American medical training at the turn of the 20th century) are fascinating. a majority seems to comprise a confusing array of researcher biographies. I would have liked to have read more about the societal reaction and changes regarding this massive worldwide plague.
John Barry does it again with The Great Influenza. Turning a historical event into what could be a magnificent mini series or a night mare reality that could be front page news today.
Good information especially at this time with the H1N1 novel influenza pandemic going on. Author was repetitive, and skipped around alot. I wasn't expecting the book to focus so much on the actual scientists, many times focusing more on their interactions between each other than on the work they were actually doing. The final "afterward" chapter was the most interesting, which was disappointing.
A little long, but still quite interesting to me.
This was a very good book, nonfiction, about the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, one of the worst epidemics in written history. The influenza pandemic has been strangely lost in public consciousness but it bears thinking about - it's the same virus (H1N1) that caused the Swine Flu break out a few months ago.This book presents the science and the sociology of the pandemic in conjunction with the history of medical advancement leading up to it. The primary approach is that of the history of medical science; the influenza outbreak occurred shortly after American medicine had established itself in something like its current form and presented it with a severe test. The cast of characters is largely made up of important scientists, and discusses the advances they made before, during, and because of the disease.Other aspects of the pandemic are also included. The parts that I found most interesting concerned the sociology of why and how the pandemic spread. The outbreak occurred just after the US had entered World War I, and troop movements, the lack of civilian doctors and nurses, war-time propaganda campaigns, and, of course, the pig-headedness of the officials in charge all played enormous rolls in the course of the disease.Overall I found the book very good. The descriptions of the actual disease and conditions during the pandemic were suitably horrifying, and the discussion of causes and effects I found very interesting. I have a few academic quibbles with the author's representation, however. There were a few places where I felt he made rather serious and unsubstantiated claims seemingly to enhance the significance of the pandemic, and he had the annoying habit of comparing statistics that didn't match (deaths per week compared to deaths per day, that kind of thing), I think towards that same end. All of that derives from the author's intention to tell a coherent story (as opposed to representing a scholarly debate), but be aware of that if you read the book. Overall enjoyable, but definitely not a light read. 4 stars.
Brilliant. Along with "Rising Tide," he has established a standard for history as story, a damn good story. History books should be written like this for high schools.
I think my first reaction to this book was to decide that I was going to get a flu shot for the first time in my life. Barry's work, which is excellent, looks first at the history of medicine and medical training in the US up through 1918, then at how the 1918 influenza outbreak was able to move across the world so quickly, then finally, how scientists worked to find a cure so that they could help to stem the tide of the epidemic before it caused more deaths. It was incredibly well written, to the point where someone like me (who has the opposite brain side to the one that can understand science) could totally comprehend what he was saying. He did not bog the reader down with incomprehensible jargon, nor did he drone on and on about any particular subject but instead kept things very readable and varied, while all the time sticking to his topic. One thing I found incredibly interesting was the author's discussion about factors leading to the sheer amount of devastation caused by the outbreak when it came, all starting with Woodrow Wilson. He cites Wilson's focus on patriotism and how he kept anything remotely negative out of the papers (and also his appointment of Creel as the head of the Committee on Public Information, whose job it was to weed out anyone who might disagree with the government's position). Barry also discussed the Red Cross and its refusal to advocate the training of practical nurses prior to the outbreak because practical nurses "seriously threatened the status of professional training and nursing" (142). Another factor was the military's appropriation of the best doctors and nurses. This was all before the outbreak of influenza in 1918, and the worst was yet to be. This book was extremely readable, very focused and quite informative. It was also a bit frightening -- who knows what governments are keeping the lid on nowadays in the realm of medicine and health issues. I'd definitely recommend it to people who may be interested in the topic.
An interesting story ruined by the overblown style. Like watching documentary footage with a voiceover by Movie Trailer Man. Also, for some reason the author decided to tie the history of the epidemic to the history of US medicine in the period (and preceding 30 years). This would have made sense if the changes in medical practice and research had had any effect on the course of the epidemic, but it didn't. Researchers were helpless, doctors were helpless, and public health advice (to the limited extent that it would have been useful) was ignored because it would have been bad for morale in wartime. So we didn't really need to spend the first section of the book learning about the foundation of the Rockefeller Institute or the biographies of the researchers who weren't able to do anything about the disease.
I owned this book for quite awhile before I got a chance to read it. I studied the Great Influenza while getting my master's degree so I already knew a lot about that portion of our history, but this book still brought the sory to me in a new way and I learned more about the beginnings of the pandemic. It gives the history of medical science, and sometimes it can get a bit dense. This is a good read for people who are interested in this subject, or American history in general. It provides a great deal of information and tells it in a dramatic, captivating way. I enjoyed reading it.
An intertwined story of the anguish of the Great 1918 Influenza Epidemic and of the work of medical scientists of the time to to try to find a way to prevent or cure the disease. The medical science side of the story drags just a little and that is why this book only gets 4 stars instead of five.
Interesting and very well-written!
I gave up 75% of the way through. The writing is not very good and I became bored, my mind kept wandering away. Barry under-delivered on promises of drama, and assumed readers understood cellular biology. He could have emphasized and repeated key points, while paring back rambling fact-filled tangents that blunted his narrative underneath a mountain of research. If he had used a braided narrative the pandemic could have started at the beginning of the book instead of frustratingly 1/3 of the way in. The are many bad pandemic histories, for example no one has yet written a good book on the Black Death. It's a difficult topic to do well.
Covering a couple of very interesting topics - the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the rebirth of American medicine - Barry has a lot of material to work with and distill. The book starts off well, with background on the state of American medicine in the years before the pandemic and some of the scientists who would tirelessly pursue the causes of influenza.Equally intriguing are the sections that talk about how the pandemic likely got started and spread. It reads a lot like Stephen King's The Stand, as the disease is passed from person to person. I found it enlightening to learn the role World War I had in the pandemic, aside from the obvious means to transmit the disease around the world. Propaganda and constant worry about "lowering morale" led to secrecy and outright lies about the severity of the outbreak, which in turn led to more deaths.Those are the good things - the bad really revolve around the writing. It was often repetitive, and sometimes confusing. If it had been edited more thoroughly, it would have been both shorter and more involving.