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.
Yet the story of the 1918 influenza virus is not simply one of havoc, death, and desolation, of a society fighting a war against nature superimposed on a war against another human society.
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.
The story, however, begins earlier. Before medicine could confront this disease with any promise of effect, it had to become scientific. It had to be revolutionized.
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.
Copyright John M Barry 2004. All rights reserved
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