The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (Paperback)

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The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History By John M. Barry Cover Image
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Staff Reviews

I think everyone who reads history has a particular era or event of interest. Odd duck that I am, mine has always been the 1918 Flu Pandemic. That it was often overlooked or minimized in textbooks fascinated me. Since we're in the midst of another pandemic, accounts of its causes, spread, and treatment offer lessons for today and optimism for how much science has developed.  

Before leaping into the emperor of all pandemics, David Quammen's Spillover is worth a look for the origins of recent diseases, including COVID-19.  Immensely readable, you don't have to have a biology degree, know how to spell "zoonotic," or know what a zoonosis is to understand how these animal-based illnesses make the leap to humans. 

The most comprehensive history of the 1918 Pandemic, both for its suspected causes and the state of medicine at the time, is John Barry's The Great Influenza. Just as there are references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese” virus, the flu of the 1900s is frequently called “the Spanish Flu.”  Both are misnomers for political reasons. WWI censorship kept many countries, especially the U.S., from discussing the flu and its spread. Neutral Spain was the exception, leading many to blame it as the cause. While still debated, the source was more likely in Kansas.  

Catherine Arnold's Pandemic 1918 offers first-hand accounts of those dealing with the flu, documenting its pervasiveness in major cities. Even Asheville receives a brief mention. But, as the author is based in England, the city is spelled "Ashville." Ah, well.

Laura Spinney's Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World covers both the time of infection and its aftermath.  Post infection, some survivors suffered neurological and psychological effects. Oliver Sacks' Awakenings is the most famous account of "sleepy sickness" survivors. Politics and medicine went through upheavals, with an increased interest in socialized medicine. Strikingly, for its global devastation, the references to the flu rarely appear in literature, the arts, and even in memory.  Spinney hypothesizes that humans made an almost collective decision to forget.

Now for that optimism. Unlike in 1918, science has advanced in the study of viruses, the development of vaccines, and anti-viral treatments.  We have antibiotics to treat secondary and bacterial infections that patients may develop. We have hand sanitizers. Clean water, for all that hand washing, is, for many, a faucet handle away.  We have platforms for immediate release of news, which is helpful for dissemination of emergency updates. Keep calm, wash hands, and hold each other in our thoughts. And shop local, even if it’s online.

— Rosemary


In the winter of 1918, at the height of WWI, 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 weeks than AIDS has 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. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research, John M. Barry weaves together multiple narratives, with characters ranging from William Welch (founder of Johns Hopkins Medical School) to John D. Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson. Ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, this crisis provides a precise and sobering model for our world as we confront AIDS, bioterrorism, and other, as yet unknown, diseases.

Product Details
ISBN: 9780143034483
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: January 25th, 2005
Pages: 560