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

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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


No disease the world has ever known even remotely resembles the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Presumed to have begun when sick farm animals infected soldiers in Kansas, spreading and mutating into a lethal strain as troops carried it to Europe, it exploded across the world with unequaled ferocity and speed. It killed more people in twenty weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty years; it killed more people in a year than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century. Victims bled from the ears and nose, turned blue from lack of oxygen, suffered aches that felt like bones being broken, and died. In the United States, where bodies were stacked without coffins on trucks, nearly seven times as many people died of influenza as in the First World War.

In his powerful new book, award-winning historian John M. Barry unfolds a tale that is magisterial in its breadth and in the depth of its research, and spellbinding as he weaves multiple narrative strands together. In this first great collision between science and epidemic disease, even as society approached collapse, a handful of heroic researchers stepped forward, risking their lives to confront this strange disease. Titans like William Welch at the newly formed Johns Hopkins Medical School and colleagues at Rockefeller University and others from around the country revolutionized American science and public health, and their work in this crisis led to crucial discoveries that we are still using and learning from today.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley said Barry’s last book can “change the way we think.” The Great Influenza may also change the way we see the world.

About the Author

John M. Barry is the author of four previous books, including the highly acclaimed and award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.
Product Details
ISBN: 9780143058823
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: March 16th, 2006