Summary and book reviews of The Great Influenza by John Barry

The Great Influenza

The Epic Story of the 1918 Pandemic

by John M. Barry

The Great Influenza
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2004, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2005, 560 pages

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Book Summary

An epic history of the deadliest plague in human history - the great flu epidemic of 1918, which killed seven times as many people as died in the First World War.

No disease the world has ever known even remotely resembles the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Presumed to have begun when sick farm animals infected soldiers in Kansas, spreading and mutating into a lethal strain as troops carried it to Europe, it exploded across the world with unequaled ferocity and speed. It killed more people in twenty weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty years; it killed more people in a year than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century. Victims bled from the ears and nose, turned blue from lack of oxygen, suffered aches that felt like bones being broken, and died. In the United States, where bodies were stacked without coffins on trucks, nearly seven times as many people died of influenza as in the First World War.

In his powerful new book, award-winning historian John M. Barry unfolds a tale that is magisterial in its breadth and in the depth of its research, and spellbinding as he weaves multiple narrative strands together. In this first great collision between science and epidemic disease, even as society approached collapse, a handful of heroic researchers stepped forward, risking their lives to confront this strange disease. Titans like William Welch at the newly formed Johns Hopkins Medical School and colleagues at Rockefeller University and others from around the country revolutionized American science and public health, and their work in this crisis led to crucial discoveries that we are still using and learning from today.

The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley said Barry's last book can "change the way we think." The Great Influenza may also change the way we see the world.

Prologue

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 ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Howard Markel

Although we have several other superb histories of the 1918 influenza pandemic, John M. Barry presents a fascinating look at how the epidemic spread and how physicians and researchers rallied to mobilize against a global health crisis.

The New England Journal of Medicine, August 5, 2004 - Karen Brudney, M.D.

His tone is often irritatingly and unnecessarily sensationalist. But his indictment of the public authorities for their dishonesty and deliberate minimization of the damage and dangers is particularly chilling in today's climate of bioterrorism, in the midst of a war whose damages and dangers have been similarly minimized. Barry makes it all too easy to imagine a similarly devastating epidemic with a similarly inadequate response. I highly recommend this book to all.

Publishers Weekly

Barry captures the sense of panic and despair that overwhelmed stricken communities and hits hard at those who failed to use their power to protect the public good....Society's ability to survive another devastating flu pandemic, Barry argues, is as much a political question as a medical one.

Kirkus Reviews

A keen recounting of the 1918-20 pandemic.... With the same terrorizing flair of Richard Preston's Hot Zone, the author follows the disease in the way he might shadow a mugger, presenting us with the vivid aftereffects as if from Weegee's camera.... [A] majestic, spellbinding treatment of a mass killer.

Booklist - Ray Olson

....an enthralling symphony of a book, whose every page compels attention.

Reader Reviews

Margaret

The Great Influenza
As a nurse, I found it amazing. The author explained things in such a way anybody could understand. It scared me and amazed me.

KC

Great Information
I found this book to be very enlightening and learned a lot about the disease, the times, the mentality, and the sciences of the day. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know about this tragic time in our history. I found it easy to ...   Read More

Anne Howard

The Great Influenza
At first you wonder why John M. Barry is going way back to the early 1800's to talk about 1918. Then, as you are drawn into the history, like emerging into the wide end of a funnel, you get it. The history of medical education and practice, the ...   Read More

Alex Sheach

Outstanding detailed and complete. Barry not only describes the progress of the epidemic, but also examines the society it ravaged. Detailed biographies of the major medical and scientific professionals involved include insight into their ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Could such a plague happen again?  Most experts seem to agree that it is not a case of if, but when - and the two likeliest candidates would probably be Avian Flu or SARS; but, of course, a rank outsider could naturally mutate at anytime, or worse still could be created in a laboratory (see 'Lab 257' by Michael Christopher Carroll which explores the inner workings of the government's top-secret laboratory on Plum Island, close to New York City, and its connections with the outbreaks of Lyme disease and West Nile virus).

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