“The Great Influenza” could be used as a text book for a class on the flu virus and the history of the medical community’s battle against it. It took me a while to get into the book, as the first 100 pages deal with the establishment of the modern doctor and the systems that were put in place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to train the modern physician. Honestly this bit was a little dry for me; not because it wasn’t interesting, but because it’s not my main area of interest in this topic.
I’d honestly hoped for more of a “life on the streets” tale, as entire cities such as New York and Philadelphia were effectively shut down during the height of the epidemic in late 1918. During that time, thousands died every single day, and bodies were stacked on porches and sidewalks to be collected much as they had been during the medieval days of the Black Plague. There’s a bit of coverage in the book on this, but mostly John M. Barry focuses on the influenza, what was needed to combat it, and those that took on that work. I wanted more focus on the people that lived through the experience, helpless to do anything, and that is touched on, but not enough for my liking.
Another major focus of the book is the military’s unintentional support given to the virus. In the United States in particular, where it’s likely that the virus originated, influenza spread quickly in over crowded camps, made its way onto transports both military and civilian heading to Europe and the Pacific, where it exploded among the high concentrations of troops already physically drained from the rigors of war. The Spanish Influenza — so dubbed because the Spanish were neutral in the war, didn’t feel it a “national security breach” to speak of any weaknesses in the press, and thus reported on it freely — has been assigned a death toll of 21.5 million worldwide, but that number is now thought to be between 30 and 50 million, with over 10 million dying in India alone. Spread by the machinery of war, the influenza took many more lives than the estimated 17 million lives taken by combat.
Barry covers everything in this book, from the tactics used to combat the disease, the doctors involved with that battle, the soldiers who helped spread the sickness, and the communities at home who would sometimes see an entire family simply drop dead over the course of a single day. Repercussions from the pandemic shaped world history if one considers that President Wilson, the only member of the Allied conference that opposed the strict measures against Germany that likely lead to the rise of the Nazi’s, came down with influenza during negotiations and was effectively nullified. Barry also touches on the influenza and how it’s been largely ignored by history and the arts. An entire generation of writers and movie makers that lived through the pandemic never even mention it, with the exception of Katherine Anne Porter’s phenomenal “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” (Seriously, it’s one of the best things ever written. Read it NOW if you haven’t).
I came to “The Great Influenza” expecting one sort of story, but got an entirely different experience. I still enjoyed it and I learned a lot. Highly recommended.