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

by John M. Barry

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,5741192,765 (3.94)2 / 218
"In the winter of 1918, the coldest the American Midwest had ever endured, history's most lethal influenza virus was born. Over the next year it flourished, killing as many as 100 million people. It killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years, more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century. There were many echoes of the Middle Ages in 1918: victims turned blue-black and priests in some of the world's most modern cities drove horse-drawn carts down the streets, calling upon people to bring out their dead." "But 1918 was not the Middle Ages, and the story of this epidemic is not simply one of death, suffering, and terror; it is the story of one war imposed upon the background of another. For the first time in history, science collided with epidemic disease, and great scientists - pioneers who defined modern American medicine - pitted themselves against a pestilence. The politicians and military commanders of World War I, focusing upon a different type of enemy, ignored warnings from these scientists and so fostered conditions that helped the virus kill. The strain of these two wars put society itself under almost unimaginable pressure. Even as scientists began to make progress, the larger society around them began to crack." "Yet ultimately this is a story of triumph amidst tragedy, illuminating human courage as well as science. In particular, this courage led a tenacious investigator directly to one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century - a discovery that has spawned many Nobel prizes and even now is shaping our future."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 119 (next | show all)
This was absolutely wonderful. It's about the 1918 influenza outbreak, but it's also about the founding of modern American medicine and the people (almost all men) who affected the course of the pandemic in America. It was brilliant. I need to see what else Barry has written! ( )
  SwitchKnitter | Dec 19, 2021 |
Amazingly readable. So appropriate after what we have been/are going through. Not just a retelling of events and people, but a thoughtful analysis. Yogi had it right- deja vu all over again. You’ll see what I mean when you read it. In the author’s afterward, he opines on the next pandemic (the last edition was 2012 I think) and dismisses masking. I believe that aerosol scientists’ recent analyses might have changed his mind; even since 2012, we have learned a lot more about viruses, but some of the structural, political, and human issues remain, unfortunately, intractable. ( )
  PattyLee | Dec 14, 2021 |
The Greatest Killer in History

Humankind likes to think it is in control and rests comfortable in that thought. When something unknown and uncontrollable strikes, panic ensues. Just that happened when influenza struck the world in 1918, a world already weary of the first total world war, a war that led to a near suspension of democracy in the United States as Woodrow Wilson and his administration prepared to enter the conflict. John Barry not only tells the story of a disease raging rampant across the U.S. and the entire world but how humankind’s own deadly squabbling and compulsion to control, restrict, and distort information contributed to worldwide panic and, probably, millions of unnecessary deaths. His is at once a tale of terror, inspiration, and caution. It’s one that readers should pay particular heed to in light of the demoralizing beating truth and honesty are taking today in American society.

To truly appreciate the 1918 influenza, readers need an understanding of biology, chemistry, public health practices, medical practices, and the political and social milieu of the period. While a lot to ask, what makes Barry’s history so brilliant is how he weaves all these disciplines into the story to the point where you acquire a basic working knowledge of virology and bacteriology, in addition to a greater appreciation of modern medical science.

Barry begins with the state of medical practice and education and scientific research a century before the great influenza attack. Indeed, what a sorry state it was with no standards in sight. Over time, though, and with great skill and insight, dedicated, curious, and exacting people wrought the kind of modern medical world familiar to us today. It arrived just in time to face off with the influenza plague. What will strike you in particular is just how small the research community was, concentrated in a few institutions in the U.S., especially Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) and a few men and a woman, among them William Welch, Simon Flexner, Oswald Avery, William Park, Anna Williams, and a handful of others. Little known today, except to those involved in medicine and research, you learn just what giants they were and how they contributed a modern life we take for granted today.

You can’t fathom influenza without understanding something of virology and bacteriology. Barry does an excellent job of explaining and illustrating how viruses and bacteria work and how researchers isolate these organisms and devise methods for combatting them. Concomitant with this knowledge is an understanding of public health policy and techniques, which Barry threads throughout the story.

In many ways, the early part of the 20th century proved a perfect breeding ground and killing field for influenza as the Great War caused great concentrations of soldiers in camps, ports, ships, and battlefields in less than healthful conditions. As readers will learn, the times accounted for an accelerated dissemination of the influenza virus and its mutations. What also contributed to the disease, especially its capacity to strike raw terror into the hearts of people so overpowering and crippling that sister would not help sister or brother brother, is that the American government, from Washington straight down to local districts, lied to the American people about the severity and cause of the health crisis, and enlisted the media of the day to participate, all in the name of patriotism and the drive to focus and marshal resources on entering and fighting the Great War. In other words, something we find ourselves confronted with again, manipulation of our free press. Along with from 50 to 100 million deaths, two other casualties of the Great Influenza were Truth and Trust.

If you have never read this book, there’s never been a better or more important to change that. Needless to say, highly recommended. ( )
  write-review | Nov 4, 2021 |
The Greatest Killer in History

Humankind likes to think it is in control and rests comfortable in that thought. When something unknown and uncontrollable strikes, panic ensues. Just that happened when influenza struck the world in 1918, a world already weary of the first total world war, a war that led to a near suspension of democracy in the United States as Woodrow Wilson and his administration prepared to enter the conflict. John Barry not only tells the story of a disease raging rampant across the U.S. and the entire world but how humankind’s own deadly squabbling and compulsion to control, restrict, and distort information contributed to worldwide panic and, probably, millions of unnecessary deaths. His is at once a tale of terror, inspiration, and caution. It’s one that readers should pay particular heed to in light of the demoralizing beating truth and honesty are taking today in American society.

To truly appreciate the 1918 influenza, readers need an understanding of biology, chemistry, public health practices, medical practices, and the political and social milieu of the period. While a lot to ask, what makes Barry’s history so brilliant is how he weaves all these disciplines into the story to the point where you acquire a basic working knowledge of virology and bacteriology, in addition to a greater appreciation of modern medical science.

Barry begins with the state of medical practice and education and scientific research a century before the great influenza attack. Indeed, what a sorry state it was with no standards in sight. Over time, though, and with great skill and insight, dedicated, curious, and exacting people wrought the kind of modern medical world familiar to us today. It arrived just in time to face off with the influenza plague. What will strike you in particular is just how small the research community was, concentrated in a few institutions in the U.S., especially Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) and a few men and a woman, among them William Welch, Simon Flexner, Oswald Avery, William Park, Anna Williams, and a handful of others. Little known today, except to those involved in medicine and research, you learn just what giants they were and how they contributed a modern life we take for granted today.

You can’t fathom influenza without understanding something of virology and bacteriology. Barry does an excellent job of explaining and illustrating how viruses and bacteria work and how researchers isolate these organisms and devise methods for combatting them. Concomitant with this knowledge is an understanding of public health policy and techniques, which Barry threads throughout the story.

In many ways, the early part of the 20th century proved a perfect breeding ground and killing field for influenza as the Great War caused great concentrations of soldiers in camps, ports, ships, and battlefields in less than healthful conditions. As readers will learn, the times accounted for an accelerated dissemination of the influenza virus and its mutations. What also contributed to the disease, especially its capacity to strike raw terror into the hearts of people so overpowering and crippling that sister would not help sister or brother brother, is that the American government, from Washington straight down to local districts, lied to the American people about the severity and cause of the health crisis, and enlisted the media of the day to participate, all in the name of patriotism and the drive to focus and marshal resources on entering and fighting the Great War. In other words, something we find ourselves confronted with again, manipulation of our free press. Along with from 50 to 100 million deaths, two other casualties of the Great Influenza were Truth and Trust.

If you have never read this book, there’s never been a better or more important to change that. Needless to say, highly recommended. ( )
  write-review | Nov 4, 2021 |
A riveting (and terrifying) read. My Kindle edition is the 2018 printing, with a revised afterward. Written before COVID-19, it still sounds eerily prescient. ( )
  AstonishingChristina | Oct 15, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 119 (next | show all)
John M. Barry calls The Great Influenza "the epic story of the deadliest plague in history," but his book is somewhat more idiosyncratic than epic and in any case is not as interested in the 1918 influenza pandemic as in the careers of those American medical researchers who studied the disease.
added by John_Vaughan | editlection, Tim morris (Jun 26, 2011)
 
Barry organizes his story as a conflict between medicine and disease. The influenza pandemic, he writes, was ''the first great collision between nature and modern science''; ''for the first time, modern humanity, a humanity practicing the modern scientific method, would confront nature in its fullest rage.'
added by pbirch01 | editNew York Times, Barry Gewen (Mar 14, 2004)
 

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John M. Barryprimary authorall editionscalculated
Belanger, FrancescaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ogolter, MartinCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robert, RichardTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Edna Rose, who didn't get to find her colors but made the world brighter anyway
To my darling Anne
and to the spirit that was Paul Lewis
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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.
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"In the winter of 1918, the coldest the American Midwest had ever endured, history's most lethal influenza virus was born. Over the next year it flourished, killing as many as 100 million people. It killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years, more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century. There were many echoes of the Middle Ages in 1918: victims turned blue-black and priests in some of the world's most modern cities drove horse-drawn carts down the streets, calling upon people to bring out their dead." "But 1918 was not the Middle Ages, and the story of this epidemic is not simply one of death, suffering, and terror; it is the story of one war imposed upon the background of another. For the first time in history, science collided with epidemic disease, and great scientists - pioneers who defined modern American medicine - pitted themselves against a pestilence. The politicians and military commanders of World War I, focusing upon a different type of enemy, ignored warnings from these scientists and so fostered conditions that helped the virus kill. The strain of these two wars put society itself under almost unimaginable pressure. Even as scientists began to make progress, the larger society around them began to crack." "Yet ultimately this is a story of triumph amidst tragedy, illuminating human courage as well as science. In particular, this courage led a tenacious investigator directly to one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century - a discovery that has spawned many Nobel prizes and even now is shaping our future."--BOOK JACKET.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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