THE GREAT INFLUENZA: A Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
- Field, Steven
- Date of entry: May-25-2021
John Barry’s The Great Influenza is a deep dive into the history of the influenza pandemic of 1918. But it is not simply a deep dive into the purely medical aspects of that history—as no medical histories truly are—but is in addition an exploration of the social and political currents of the time that coexisted with and facilitated the pandemic.
Although his story opens with the establishment of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1876, Barry immediately takes a detour into the history of medicine dating back to Hippocrates, and traces the history of medical/scientific thought from Ancient Greece to the end of the 19th century. He then introduces a series of physicians, scientists, and medical researchers who will play their parts in the story of the pandemic (this first section is called “The Warriors”) and outlines their training, research, and interactions.
It isn’t until page 91 that he takes us to the rural Kansas county in which the story of the pandemic begins. For although it was called the “Spanish Flu,” that was actually an eponym of convenience; in fact, the first cases of pandemic flu seem to have arisen on the American prairie. However, newspaper reporting on the new pandemic was felt by the Allies and Central Powers alike to be contrary to the public interest (the war was still raging), so it was left to neutral Spain, whose king had come down with the disease, to publish the early reports. In this section, “The Swarm”, Barry also briefly reviews the basic (not to worry, very basic) microbiology of viruses and the history of some prior pandemics. He follows this with the section called “The Tinderbox,” in which he traces the events leading up to the entry of the United States into World War I, and the importance of that war and the political and social conditions surrounding it in the history of the pandemic. From here on in the influenza itself takes center stage; in sections called “It Begins,” “Explosion,” “Pestilence,” “The Race,” and “The Tolling of the Bell,” the rapid and lethal course of the pandemic is described in gripping (no pun intended) detail. The last two sections discuss the scientific advances (and some false starts) brought about by the cadre of researchers working day and night to tame the outbreak, and then Barry finally turns to the retreat of the virus and ultimate end of the pandemic. The book ends as it began, returning to the stories of the individual men and women of science who engaged in the battle to beat the disease of which it had initially been said by many that “[t]his was, after all, only influenza.”
A new Afterword was added in 2018