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

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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


#1 New York Times bestseller

“Barry will teach you almost everything you need to know about one of the deadliest outbreaks in human history.”—Bill Gates

"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.

About the Author

John M. Barry is the author of four previous books: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed Amer­ica; Power Plays: Politics, Football, and Other Blood Sports; The Transformed Cell: Unlocking the Mysteries of Cancer (cowritten with Steven Rosenberg); and The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington. He lives in New Orleans and Wash­ington, D.C.

Praise For…

Over a year on The New York Times bestseller list

"Monumental... powerfully intelligent... not just a masterful narrative... but also an authoritative and disturbing morality tale." —Chicago Tribune 

"Easily our fullest, richest, most panoramic history of the subject." The New York Times Book Review

"Hypnotizing, horrifying, energetic, lucid prose..." Providence Observer

"A sobering account of the 1918 flu epidemic, compelling and timely. The Boston Globe

"History brilliantly written... The Great Influenza is a masterpiece." Baton Rouge Advocate  
Product Details
ISBN: 9780143036494
ISBN-10: 0143036491
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: October 4th, 2005
Pages: 576
Language: English