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

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  11,091 ratings  ·  1,005 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
ebook, 560 pages
Published October 1st 2005 by Penguin Books (first published February 9th 2004)
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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...more
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...more
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...more
Jan 25, 2009 Mike rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
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...more
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...more
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...more
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
Thomas Paul
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...more
Jun 26, 2013 Mike rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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...more
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...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...more
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...more
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...more
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...more
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.
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...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

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...more
M.J. Groves
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
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...more
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
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
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...more
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...more
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
The science is incredible. The author's penchant to ramble on about seemingly inconsequential things is not.
I really WANT to like non-fiction. I really like the IDEA of understanding complex matters more completely. It sounds like such a noble pursuit. This wasn't so much a book as a tome. I learned a lot. I retained some of it. There were very, very many numbers in this book. It was a lot of work. I probably am a better person for having slugged through it. I can't imagine anyone really enjoying this, just sort of gaining a sense of accomplishment for having stuck with it.

Not much of a recommendatio...more
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Good book to read if you are concerned about Ebola 6 15 Oct 20, 2014 10:00PM  
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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...
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty The Ambition and the Power: The Fall of Jim Wright : A True Story of Washington The Creation of the American Soul: Roger Williams, Church and State, and the Birth of Liberty Power Plays: Politics, Football, and Other Blood Sports

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