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

3.95  ·  Rating Details ·  15,056 Ratings  ·  1,263 Reviews
Read by Scott Brick

An epic history of the deadliest plague in human history and how it forever changed American science, politics, and medicine.

Unabridged CDs - 16 CDs, 20 hours
Audio CD, 16 pages
Published March 16th 2006 by Penguin Audio (first published 2004)
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Oct 09, 2007 Stephen rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I am really surprised at the number of positive reviews this book got, both professional and consumer. I am currently a little more than halfway through and feel the need to write something in case I don't finish it and lose the desire.

Before critiquing Barry and his writing style, or lack thereof, his editor, Wendy Wolf deserves special mention. This is the first book I have ever read in which I have made special note of the editor and will refuse to read anything she works on in the future. I
Aug 14, 2012 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, medicine
This book is what happens when I combine the iPad, Amazon’s one-click shopping, and my functional alcoholism.

I had just sat down in my favorite chair for my weekly wine-drunk. No sooner had I dropped some ice cubes into a pint-glass full of Yellow Tail wine (because I’m that classy), than Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion began playing on HBO.

I never intended to watch the movie. Based on the trailers, I had decided that it was too much like the movie Outbreak, except with fewer monkeys and 100% le
Sep 19, 2007 Dave rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book had promise, and is good in spots - but the overall product suffers greatly from lack of direction and editorial control. If I could rate the best third of the book, I would give it five stars. The other two thirds of the book suffers substantially from a lack of focus, inclusion of unnecessary information, and overly dramatic narrative. And, to add insult to injury, the footnotes are handled in such a fashion that they become nearly useless.

In the afterword, it becomes quite obvious t
Nov 28, 2008 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who would skip their flu shots
Recommended to Mike by: Phyllis
This book took me a long time to read, for several reasons. First, it really is two books in one. The first book is a history of the men and women and institutions involved in the change to scientific medicine in this country around the turn of the century. The second is the story of the influenza plague of 1918-1922 itself, the horrors of it, the death rate, the physical symptoms, the psychological effects, and the rather interesting fact that it seems to have been largely forgotten as the hist ...more
A.L. Sowards
I thought this would be a history of the misnamed Spanish flu of 1918 (it originated in the US, but since Spain was one of the few countries not at war and not censoring information, it took that country’s name). This book included information about the epidemic, but also extensive details about the founding of Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute and the men (and at least one woman) involved in those organizations. I had been hoping for the story of the epidemic all over the world, but t ...more
Mike (the Paladin)
I hesitate to go 3 starts on this book, but for what it is it's a good book. The thing is (and I've seen other reviewers here say the same thing) it's not what I would call "primarily" about the 1918/1919 Influenza pandemic. That's what I was "primarily" interested in.

My grandparents and great grandparents lived through this time. My grand-aunt lived into her 90s and close to 100. She was one of those people (and most of us have known them) who seemed to have a "cast iron constitution". She was
I read many of the reviews of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. Many reviews are on target, the book just doesn't meet expectations for what should be a powerful tale. Unless you already have the book, I wouldn't rush to get it. How can I characterize it? Pompous, pretentious, repetitive, bloated,...? It seems he is trying to write like Simon Winchester, bringing in various threads to make a colorful tapestry. Except it is threadbare, strained, frayed. Just ...more
Sara W
Getting a little boring, so I'm taking a break from it. I think I expected a social history (how everyday people dealt with the flu, how it affected communities, etc.), and instead it's a very detailed history of medicine at the time (and well, well before the time of the flu!). I think I made it through a good 1/4 to 1/3 of the book (or more) before the Spanish flu began to get mentioned. The focus is on the medicine and doctors (individuals and as a profession - you get the whole history of U. ...more
Nov 03, 2012 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall this was a very good book. Expansive, thorough, and at times utterly fascinating. I'm sure people around me are completely sick of me talking about the flu at this point but this is that kind of book that will do that to you. It falls short of getting five stars for a couple of reasons, some of which are about the book but most of which are about me as a reader:

1. It's almost too expansive: In Barry's quest to explore every possible nook and cranny of the 1918 Influenza pandemic he leave
Mar 05, 2009 Clif rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
John Barry is in love with science and we are the beneficiaries in this comprehensive account of the influenza epidemic that came at the end of WWI. Some of his prose is quite lyrical when he praises the scientific method and the virtue of rational thinking combined with imagination in some of the researchers he covers.

But there are villains as well as heroes here as we enter an earlier time where government did almost nothing while private initiatives and funding allied with individual effort t
May 17, 2007 Joel rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Like a poorly crafted pop song, this book is full of occasional flashes of intelligence and brilliance, but is brought down to the level of the two star by it's repetitive nature and bogged down by details.

Okay, the metaphor doesn't really work with the "bogged down by details" part, but other than that, it's apt.

In attempts to create a rhythm, and strike a melodic note with his writing, Barry uses phrases he thinks are poignant to the point of annoyance. It's honestly like that Debbie Gibson s
Aug 24, 2009 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone

This turned out to be a great follow-up to Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.
(view spoiler)
However, I originally added it to my TBR list it
Thomas Paul
Nov 18, 2011 Thomas Paul rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It killed more people in 6 months than the Black Death killed in a century. People who were young and strong were the most likely to die. In the US, 650,000 people died. The average life expectancy in the US went down by 10 years. Worldwide, perhaps 100 million people died. And yet, it was only the flu. Even today, 90 years after the epidemic, it kills 36,000 Americans in a typical year and we are hardly more prepared to face another epidemic.

John M. Barry has written a fascinating account of th
Jul 07, 2009 Patti rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating book. Many, many times in the book, I stopped and said to myself, "that's interesting, I never knew that". The early history of the practice medicine in this country and lack of training of the doctors was jaw dropping.

During WWI, academic instruction in general suffered due to total commitment to the war effort. "In view of the comparatively short time during which most of the student-soldiers will remain in college and the exacting military duties awaiting them, academic instructi
Nov 29, 2008 Jeff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some people think I'm obsessed with disasters, but really I'm just fascinated by change. It's why I love history, among other things. 50 to 100 million people dying over the course of a year is a pretty big change, and the fact that it was all caused by a tiny little microscopic tidbit is utterly compelling. Mr. Barry does a more than thorough job of telling the story. You get a history of medicine, a science lesson in the biology of viruses, a review of the socio-political factors that led the ...more
"One always tends to overpraise a long book because one has got through it." – E.M. Forster

It took me the better part of the summer to listen to this audiobook in my car (I don't drive that much) -- and I confess that it soon became more of a chore than a pleasure. I do wish there had been a competently edited abridged version, for if ever a book cried out for editing, it was this one.

Some of the book's strengths, however, include the exhaustive account of how the pandemic started and spread, n
This review was written by Liz Roland and posted by Lizzy Mottern.

This substantial book that exhaustively researched ( 60 pages of notes and bibliography) reads like a massive thriller, compelling the reader forward to find a vaccine/cure for this deadly, ever-mutating virus that killed more people in late 1918 and early 1919 than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century. In the U.S., nearly seven times as many people died of this virus as died in World War I.

John Barry, an award-winni
Jan 23, 2008 Carole rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-medicine
I found the book a page turner...almost a medical mystery in the way it was laid out. As a physician, I was familiar with many of the names of physicians from the early 20th century, but the author draws such clear pictures of them--their character, experience, and flaws--that I found it a fascinating history of medicine as it developed late in the 19th century and into the early 10th century.

There was also fascinating political history in the way it impacted the communication and decision-makin
Oct 05, 2008 Ken rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Begins brilliantly with a concise and breezy history of infectious disease study. Continues as a very readable tale of the influenza epidemic, but eventually gets a bit bogged down in many minute details that I would just have well skipped (it’s a long book). However, overall a very important and significant account of how modern mankind dealt with a serious infectious agent, with grave implications for today’s world.
Dec 16, 2009 Melinda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I highly recommend this book! It reads like a "who-done-it", except that you know who did it (the influenza virus) and you are watching the medical scientists struggle to find solutions while the wild-fire of the 1918 influenza pandemic raged all around them. Will they find a solution in time? (see the bottom paragraph for an answer to this question)

Before documenting the path of the 1918 influenza, the author lays the groundwork for the transformed medical atmosphere from the late 1800's into t
I read The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History because I had the John M. Barry's The Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and was impressed by his storytelling ability, coupled with impeccable research and understanding of the importance of context when writing about such events. He did not disappoint with this book.

The Great Influenza, as most of us know, occurred at a most vulnerable time for the United States and the world -- during World War I. The fir
Dec 31, 2016 Lena rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beyond five stars. How many books are entertaining, important, engaging and edifying? I can only think of one, this one. I thought this was going to read like a thriller by Michael Crichton or Dan Brown following a plucky single doctor who fights hard for his patients, makes a breakthrough, and saves the day. That's not this book because that's definitely not what happened.

The book starts off with a history of medicine. I had a vague idea about this beginning with Hypocrites and then jumping t
Beth Cato
I approached this mammoth book with excitement, which soon dimmed as I slogged through the first 100 pages. It was all background on academic changes regarding science and research, especially in the forming of Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute, and key figures in this advancement. Interesting stuff, if in a small dose, but it dragged on as I was impatient to get to the actual influenza outbreak. Once I reached that part, I found the book I had hoped for and sped through hundreds of pa ...more
Sharon Griffitts
I loved this book. It is filled with so much historical background that goes beyond the simple story of the 1918 flu epidemic. It helped me understand the urgency behind the swine flu of 2009 and the earlier concerns of the Asian bird flu. The word is overdue for an epidemic of catastrophic proportions and medical epidemiologists are well aware of this. As a physician, I especially appreaciated the science and history of Barry's work. The best part, though, was it was entertaining and not the le ...more
May 09, 2012 Mara rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Read it for a biotech class in college and really enjoyed it- I mean, it shined pretty brightly compared to my biochem textbook

This book. I don’t know. There’s so much to love, but there’s also so much to hate, and, even worse, there’s so much to induce snickering at utterly inappropriate times.

At least we know what the author was going for: in the acknowledgements, John M. Barry says that he started out to tell the tale of the 1918 global influenza pandemic – numerically, the deadliest outbreak of human infectious disease – with a focus on those studying and trying to control it. But then he realized the story of that
Dec 22, 2010 Bruce rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not saying there's not a lot of meat here, just that it's not worth the digestive problems the author induces to get at them.

Bear with me as this is going to be something of an odd review, inasmuch as I'll be using it to compare two completely unrelated books, neither of which has anything to do with the subject of my short essay. Susan Casey's The Devil's Teeth is ostensibly about great white sharks and the Farallon Islands: a windswept, bird-festooned archipelago off the coast of San Franc
Nancy (NE)
Jan 06, 2013 Nancy (NE) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The Great Influenza is both a science and a history book. At times the sheer amount and depth of information was overwhelming. Being written for the most part chronologically, it jumped around a lot, making it challenging to stick with the people, events and science. It was also repetitive in places. There has been criticism that Barry got some minutiae of his science wrong. However, for the average reader, those details will hardly be what I carry away from this read. The impact of the pandemic ...more
May 26, 2012 Colleen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
So my friends (and some of you here on Goodreads) got the exquisite torture of me reading this book for past few weeks (I'm a fast reader but this was my "work" book that I read during my interminably slow restarts at the office).

Much of the book can be disregarded. If one wanted to read a book on medical science from antiquity to its reformation, then this book might be for you. Instead the book felt weirdly disjointed and unnecessary--yes John Hopkins is a great school, and hurray! for advanc
Oct 12, 2007 Ryl rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, reviewed
This book would be more enjoyable if it picked a topic and stuck to it. Judging by the title, this is a book about the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Judging by the first section, it's about the development of medical research, the career of William Henry Welch, and the creation of the Rockefeller Institute. Then the flu shows up in Kansas. Then the focus jumps around between the flu and Welch and his cronies who declare the flu a "new form of plague" before dying off to make way for the next set ...more
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John M. Barry is an American author and historian, perhaps best known for his books on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 the influenza pandemic of 1918and his book on the development of the modern form of the ideas of separation of church and state and individual liberty. His most recent book is Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Viking ...more
More about John M. Barry...

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“Another explanation for the failure of logic and observation alone to advance medicine is that unlike, say, physics, which uses a form of logic - mathematics - as its natural language, biology does not lend itself to logic. Leo Szilard, a prominent physicist, made this point when he complained that after switching from physics to biology he never had a peaceful bath again. As a physicist he would soak in the warmth of a bathtub and contemplate a problem, turn it in his mind, reason his way through it. But once he became a biologist, he constantly had to climb out of the bathtub to look up a fact.” 1 likes
“In fact, biology is chaos. Biological systems are the product not of logic but of evolution, an inelegant process. Life does not choose the logically best design to meet a new situation. It adapts what already exists...The result, unlike the clean straight lines of logic, is often irregular, messy.” 0 likes
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