Review: The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

Posted 25 May, 2020 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
By: John M. Barry
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase

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.

People told me this might not be the best time to read this book given what’s going on around the world with COVID-19 but I thought there was no better time than now to read this book. There’s a lot of similarities mentioned between the two pandemics and it was something I didn’t read as much when I was in school, having always focused on the wider geopolitics.

Having read this book now…I know we have the advantage of hindsight, but the course of the 1918 H1N1 flu (the term “Spanish flu” having only come up because Spain was the only country accurately reporting about it at the time given its neutrality during the First World War) is so very similar to what we are experiencing right now with COVID-19: from the confusing array of symptoms (minus the hemorrhaging; my God it sounds like a horror movie, if the confusing number of symptoms didn’t terrify you, the random hemorrhaging would scare you) to the spread (including the overwhelming dead), to the measures taken to slow the disease (PSAs on proper hygiene, social distancing, wearing masks in public) to the lack of resources (doctors and nurses, supplies) to the lack of coordination and support from the federal government (in the United States, at least). Other terrifying details about the course of the 1918 pandemic? A vaccine was never discovered, in part because of the technology of the time, in part because the pandemic had died down before they were able to test the vaccine. And there were three waves of the spread before it ended.

As worrying a read, I feel it is essential in understanding the nature of an epidemic or pandemic, as well as human response to disease. This book focuses on developments in the United States as well as the rise of modern medicine prior to, the establishment of the John Hopkins, etc. It’s a fascinating read, as well as the key people involved in the study of H1N1. What frustrated me reading this book was how, like now, some bodies initially were not transparent as to what was going on and could have slowed the spread had they outright mentioned that there was something weird going on. There’s a lot of factors to consider, as well as of course not wanting to incite panic, but the decisions made to not do anything initially and not acknowledge what was going on was rather furstrating. But anyway, going back to the book, it was pretty all encompassing in discussing both the spread of the virus and the response to the pandemic. I know I have the advantage of working in healthcare that some of the information about pathogens and how viruses attack the body and epidemiology methods click a little quicker for me but I thought this book was very accessible in expaining these elements.

So yeah, it’s a thick book but it’s informative and, as I mentioned, essential. The only reason I didn’t give it a full 5 stars was because there was a bit of writer’s flourish at times that I thought was a little over the topic, notably at the end of every chapter. Felt like I was reading a soap opera lol, and I like my history books to be a little more terse. But anyway, I highly recommend this book.

Rating: ★★★★½

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