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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
3,9071292,723 (3.93)2 / 225
#1 New York Times bestseller "Monumental... an authoritative and disturbing morality tale."--Chicago Tribune  The strongest weapon against pandemic is the truth. Read why in the definitive account of the 1918 Flu Epidemic.  Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research, The Great Influenza provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. As Barry concludes, "The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that...those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart."    At the height of World War I, 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.… (more)
  1. 40
    Flu by Gina Kolata (hailelib)
    hailelib: Covers the same pandemic with a different approach.
  2. 42
    Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (labfs39)
    labfs39: For a non-fiction account of an epidemic that many thought was the Black Plague come again
  3. 20
    The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (John_Vaughan)
  4. 10
    The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby (John_Vaughan)
  5. 10
    Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill (M_Clark)
    M_Clark: This book talks about many of the plagues that have erupted throughout history and how they have influenced the course of history.
  6. 11
    Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (infiniteletters)
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» See also 225 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 129 (next | show all)
It has taken me 4 months to make it through this book, and I've put it aside and come back to it several times. I am fascinated by the subject and I did learn a lot, but Barry's writing style just wore me down. ( )
  AuntieG0412 | Jan 23, 2023 |
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry earned its reputation as an authoritative book about one of the world's great catastrophes of all times, the 1918-20 Spanish Flu pandemic. For reasons that are obvious it is quite timely now.

The Spanish Flu has been overshadowed in history by the violent end to WW I, then known as The Great War. WW I upended the long-prevailing history of Europe, ending all of its great monarchies and empires save the British Empire. The Spanish Flu, in parallel fashion but for more temporarily upended life in the U.S.

Similar to the current Covid-19 pandemic, the disease sewed panic. The author suggests that the panic was fueled by the efforts of the various governments to minimize it. I think the author's hypothesis is well-reasoned and strongly researched. Also, in light of the reaction to the novel Coronavirus the level of media and government attention has been, at best, a mixed blessing.

Turning from my own historical analysis to the book, it was gripping. I read the 461 pages in about twelve days. Some of the other reviewers of the books have justifiable quibbles. The prevailing one is weak editing. It was too repetitive. The literary device of repeating the last words of a previous sentence was overused. My own criticism is that the book was too often written out of chronological order. This may have been needed to give faithful mini-biographies of leading scientists and other players.

That is why I am giving the book a "four" rather than "five" on Goodreads. I highly recommend it; but beware, certain stretches may make a calm sleep afterwards difficult. ( )
  JBGUSA | Jan 2, 2023 |
Good book on the big pandemic 1918, at the end of World War One. Pretty horrific stories about disease and death all over the world and especially in America. Seems appropriate to read right now. There was a lot of misinformation back then, like today. It was also on the beginnings of modern medical science, and that part was slow reading for me, but it is worthwhile. Never actually pinned down the exact virus--could have been a combination. Scary. Today's Covid 19 does not seem quite as bad. ( )
  kslade | Dec 8, 2022 |
Comprehensive look at the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50 million people worldwide. The author starts with a history of medical science, describing the common thoughts of the time immediately preceding the pandemic, and documenting the improvements made by notable institutions and scientists of the day. He traces the origins of the disease, likely in Kansas, and the spread of the disease through transfer and deployment of American military personnel in WWI.

A good portion of the book is devoted to the science of viruses (what they look like under a microscope, how they mutate, and how they infect a host), research methodology, and the many ways people tried to curtail the proliferation of the disease. He takes politicians and newspaper representatives to task for failing to tell citizens the truth. In fact, it ended up being called “Spanish flu” due to the fact that “only the Spanish newspapers were publishing accounts of the spread of the disease that were picked up in other countries.” He analyzes how society reacted to the overwhelming challenges created by the pandemic, and what lessons can be learned from it. Leadership is important, especially during a crisis, and it was sorely lacking in many instances.

The portion of the book focused in the influenza outbreak is the most effective. Barry paints a disturbing picture of the horrors created by the rapid contagion: “But the most terrifying aspect of the epidemic was the piling up of bodies. Undertakers, themselves sick, were overwhelmed. They had no place to put bodies. Gravediggers either were sick or refused to bury influenza victims. The director of the city jail offered to have prisoners dig graves, then rescinded the offer because he had no healthy guards to watch them. With no gravediggers, bodies could not be buried. Undertakers’ work areas were overflowing, they stacked caskets in halls, in their living quarters—many lived above their businesses.”

This book gives highlights the contributions of a number of scientists that may not be familiar to many readers. It points out some of the discoveries that came out of research dedicated to isolating the source of this virulent version of influenza, such as how DNA carries genetic code. I am impressed by the amount of research that went into this book, as documented in the extensive footnotes and bibliography.

At times, it gets a bit scattered and repetitive, and the author digresses into areas not directly related to the influenza epidemic, but overall it provides a detailed analysis of what happened and cautions us not to become complacent. If anyone wants motivation to get the annual flu vaccine, this book will provide plenty of rationale. It will appeal to those with an interest in science or the history of medicine. If reading it for the historical significance, be prepared for lots of scientific details.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
I thought this was a very interesting, disheartening and angering read. Although written nearly 20 years ago, about an event that happened a century ago, the author shows that humanity does change and does not learn from history.

The events we have witnessed during the Covid pandemic have a multitude of close similarities to the 1918 flu pandemic. The lack if leadership, good decision-making and belief in science were duplicated from a century before.

I could have dine without some of the author's heavy handed foreshadowing. Some chapters were particularly difficult to get through due to the brutal facts being conveyed. This is not light reading, but it is a good study of human behavior. It also has a very interesting thread throughout the book in the radical change in American medical education, doctrine and advancement starting near the turn if the century.

Please folks, try to understand that science is always evolving and recommendations and treatments can and will vary even in the short term. Think, learn from history and let's stop repeating our past mistakes. ( )
  WEPhillips | Oct 20, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 129 (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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#1 New York Times bestseller "Monumental... an authoritative and disturbing morality tale."--Chicago Tribune  The strongest weapon against pandemic is the truth. Read why in the definitive account of the 1918 Flu Epidemic.  Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research, The Great Influenza provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. As Barry concludes, "The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that...those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart."    At the height of World War I, 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.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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