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The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

3.95  ·  Rating Details  ·  14,083 Ratings  ·  1,190 Reviews
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 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 ...more
Paperback, Revised Edition, 560 pages
Published October 4th 2005 by Penguin Books (first published 2004)
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Nov 08, 2007 Stephen rated it did not like it
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
Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it really liked it
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
Oct 18, 2007 Dave rated it liked it
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
Jan 25, 2009 Mike rated it really liked it
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)
Dec 04, 2012 Mike (the Paladin) rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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
Sara W
Jun 20, 2009 Sara W rated it it was ok
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
Mar 05, 2009 Clif rated it really liked it
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
Feb 13, 2013 Mike rated it really liked it
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
May 29, 2007 Joel rated it it was ok
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
Jun 26, 2013 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
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
Nov 29, 2008 Jeff rated it really liked it
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
Jul 14, 2009 Lizzy added it
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
Jul 16, 2009 Patti rated it it was amazing
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
"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
Jun 08, 2009 Carole rated it really liked it
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
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.
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
Jan 14, 2010 Melinda rated it really liked it
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
Sharon Griffitts
May 17, 2011 Sharon Griffitts rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 30, 2015 Julia rated it it was amazing
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
May 19, 2014 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
While reading The Great Influenza I kept having to remind myself that this happened. It doesn't seem possible that a virus could kill over 50 million people. There were probably more deaths, but some countries had no record keeping or very limited records, so it's hard to determine the full magnitude of the pandemic. World War I was raging and troops were being sent across the globe. They were infecting and spreading the disease as they traveled. The press wasn't reporting on the virus as it sho ...more

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
M.J. Groves
Jan 18, 2014 M.J. Groves rated it really liked it
Fascinating details on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I was struck by how inadequate the political, scientific and social systems were in identifying the problem, and then how, either willfully or ignorantly, each system failed to enact or support appropriate measures. Even when one considers the lack of knowledge at the time, there were enough people of credible character that more might have been done, particularly in the way of avoiding needless exposures of young military recruits. it was ba ...more
Nancy (NE)
Mar 26, 2013 Nancy (NE) rated it really liked it
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
Aug 08, 2013 Christopher rated it it was ok
An interesting book with an eclectic approach to the subject that is generally rewarding. The different strands that the author chases down often prove enlightening, varying from the dismal state of American medical science and practice at the end of the 19th century to the draconian laws that Wilson passed upon America's entrance into the Great War.

At times, however, the author's enthusiasm for these threads overwhelms his sense of the larger work, leading to lengthy and detailed tangents into
May 05, 2011 Jen rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fic
I would have given this book a better review, but the author failed to focus his subject. The first section of the book deals not with the influenza epidemic of 1918-1918 but the history and status of medical schools in the early 1900's. While this is a facinating topic and most readers are probably shocked to find out the majority of MD's in at the turn of the century graduated medical school without ever touching a patient, the length of discussion is not necessary to discuss the influenza epi ...more
16 discs later, I have finished listening to The Great Influenza. Let me begin by saying that this work of non-fiction is not for the faint of heart. Barry, using sound research, goes into great detail about the symptoms and horrors of this pandemic and some of those details are quite intense. Beyond the flu itself, Barry gives an overall history of the medical practice in the United States as well as the science beyond the flu. Even without a science background, I was able to understand the mic ...more
Dec 20, 2011 Joanne rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Who edited this book and WHY did they ever let John Barry away with destroying what could have been the most fascinating story about an epic period of recent human history with tedious hyperbole, stilted melodrama, and a simple lack of good sense? Barry spends far too much time talking about non-players/minor players and the minutiae of their lives apart from the influenza making the reading utterly dull in parts. On the other hand, much of the real and relevant writing about the epidemic is fas ...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
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