“The Great Influenza” book

I have so many things to say about this book! I started reading it because, like many others, the current COVID pandemic prompted my interest in the 1918-1920 flu pandemic. I wanted to know more about it, how people handled a pandemic a century ago, what was the effect on society and the economy, and most importantly – why we know so little about it?! 

The book gave all these answers and even more. It is more “medical” than I thought it would be; sometimes, I felt like there were too many medical details, but that’s what makes this book so convincing. 

 It starts with a survey of medicine and medical science history in America. I could not imagine that there was such a lack of science until the beginning of the 20th century! And then, the book proceeds with documenting the development of the flu pandemic, covering all medical, social, and political aspects. You can’t stop making parallels with the COVID pandemic, even though the book was written more than ten years ago. (The last version of the afterword was written when the COVID pandemic had already begun, so some similarities are discussed)

The big question I had from the very beginning of the current pandemic was the following: why do we know so little about the Spanish flu pandemic? Historical textbooks mention briefly that “one hundred million people got sick,” but that’s pretty much it. When you read anything related to the 1918 – 1920 period, the flu is never mentioned as a background of events. 

The most important reason why it all but disappeared from world history is that it was forbidden to write about it! The world was at war, and none of the participating countries wanted to spread panic or “hurt the morale.” That statement explained much of what was going on. It’s unbelievable: people were getting sick and dying. In some cities, like Philadelphia, dead bodies were piling in the houses because there was nobody to carry them away and nobody to bury them. And newspapers said nothing!

It was primarily because of the wartime censorship, but also because there was (and there is) nothing heroic in dying from a disease. 

The government kept saying, “it’s nothing but the common cold.” Same as know there were people in denial. A quote from the book:

The government’s very efforts to preserve “morale” fostered the fear, for since the war began, morale—defined in the narrowest, most shortsighted fashion—had taken precedence in every public utterance. As California senator Hiram Johnson said in 1917, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

Barry, John M.. The Great Influenza (pp. 333-334). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

And one more – especially pronounced because it was written way before the pandemic:

So the first two items on the list are the lessons from 1918, which COVID has confirmed: 

Number one, tell the truth. 

Number two, NPIs work.

Barry, John M.. The Great Influenza (p. 467). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

The author notes that not only the newspapers were silent, but also almost no works of literature mention the Spanish flu pandemic (that prompted me to start actively looking for such books, found some). You can’t stop thinking that our COVID memories might vanish in less than a hundred years! And you can’t stop thinking that the Spanish flu lessons were not learned!

4 thoughts on ““The Great Influenza” book

  1. Ditto your recommendation. Barry gives a good account, and published in 2004, it benefits from earlier histories. I’d also recommend Gina Kolata’s “Flu”. Published in 1999, it’s more about the hunt for the specific virus that caused the 1918 pandemic but the history is very much a part of it. It may be out of print, but here current bylines are at https://www.nytimes.com/by/gina-kolata. Then, if you have time, there’s Laurie Garrett’s 1994 classic, “The Coming Plague” (750 pages!). This is not so much about influenza, as you might imagine: https://www.lauriegarrett.com/the-coming-plague. There’s a lot of interesting history there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not sure I will have time for even longer books :), but I will definitely read more. And probably write more, as even this morning I realised I had more to say (reading an article about long covid in Time magazine


  2. The AIDS epidemic is a more recent “deja vue” experience in some ways. It took Reagan 4 years before he even publicly mentioned AIDS though that was because the administration tried to shame it into a disease with a sexual preference. Their lack of funding and attention should have been criminal. A great book on the topic is Randy Schilts “And the Band Played On”. They made a movie from it but it’s hard to find now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about the lack of attention and funding, and people’s sufferings were terrible. And actually, John Barry mentions several “smaller” epidemics in his afterword. Still, the influenza epidemic was the biggest disaster of recent history and many in the overall history of mankind. There were pandemics that would kill a larger percentage of the population, but not by the number. Still, I agree it’s horrible that the lessons are not learned!


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