A keen recounting of the 1918–20 pandemic.
This deadly global flu outbreak has gotten hazy in the public memory, and its origins and character were unclear from the beginning, writes popular historian Barry (Rising Tide, 1997, etc.). But influenza tore apart the world’s social fabric for two long years, and it would be a mistake to forget its lessons. (It also tore apart the American medical establishment—but that was for the good.) 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: “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.” But Barry is not interested simply in hugely disturbing numbers. He charts how the pandemic brought a measure of scientific maturity to the medical world and profiles such important personalities as Paul Lewis and William Henry Welch, institutions like Johns Hopkins, the Rockefeller Institute, and the Red Cross. He covers with an easy touch the evolution in our understanding of viral disease and the strides that have been made to counter its effects, such as vaccines. He watches the flu spread until there aren’t enough coffins to house the bodies, and he watches as the military fails to alert the general public because the brass feared it would hurt wartime morale. Influenza appears to have spread like a prairie fire from a military base in Kansas throughout the world, thanks to WWI troop deployment and the disease’s highly contagious nature. There was nowhere to hide, Barry chillingly explains: “It now seemed as if there had never been life before the epidemic. The disease informed every action of every person.” Emerging viruses, including new strains of flu, will likely visit us again.
Majestic, spellbinding treatment of a mass killer.