jill's Reviews > The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
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's review
Jun 09, 09

bookshelves: history, found-on-a-plane, non-fiction
Recommended for: Lani
Read in June, 2009

I found this book on a plane over a year ago and never got around to reading it until the swine flu was all over the news last month. This suddenly seemed topical.
It's a very broad look at the 1918 influenza pandemic, with a focus on the scientific and medical response to the disease. It would have benefited from a bit more editing, as it gets very repetitive in parts, but it's full of interesting detail and I enjoyed reading it. There's an extensive bibliography, and I was pleased that anytime I flipped back to the endnotes to find the source for a bit of information that peaked my curiosity, there was inevitably a citation. One book in particular seemed to be the source for several of the more interesting facts Barry provided; clearly, I need to get my hands on Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education by Kenneth Ludmerer.
For me, the most interesting parts were the beginning sections discussing the history of medicine and the turn of the century efforts to apply science to medicine. Barry really focuses on a small cadre of scientists who brought medical research to America and professionalized and standardized American medical schools. His writing is at its best when he delves into the contributions and personalities of the individual scientists. He tosses in great details, like the fact that William Welch "took vacations alone in Atlantic City, where he enjoyed its tackiness"(63). He emphasizes the role played by John Hopkins University and its founders in improving American medical education, which was interesting in its own right but also because Barry constantly refers to John Hopkins University as "the Hopkins;" a nickname apparently once in common usage, but it just struck me as sort of pompous, and I giggled every time it came up -- which was often.
Barry's explanation of how the influenza virus works and his explanations of the research projects of various scientists were very clear and engaging. He also does a good job of including women -- female researchers like Anna Ward and Mary Wollstein get discussed for their contributions, not treated as novelties. Barry also highlights the role of professional nursing organizations and women's groups in cities, notably Philadelphia, organizing the campaign to deal with the pandemic.
He does a good job of showing how WWI contributed to the pandemic. The sections on America entering the war, and the way in which the homefront was rallied, were very interesting, if extremely anti-Wilson. I'll have to skim his bibliography for a good Woodrow Wilson biography, because Barry's portrayal of Wilson was strikingly negative; at one point he writes, "He was one of those rare men who believed almost to the point of mental illness in his own righteousness"(121). He also takes a quote from Wilson predicting that if the nation enters the war "the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life"(121 and 144) and treats it as if Wilson is plotting to inject brutality into the nation, rather than my reading of the quote as simply acknowledging (and maybe even regretting) that brutality will be a consequence of waging war. Later, he blames the Treaty of Versailles on mental illness in Wilson, brought on by a bout of influenza. This struck me as one of the more tenuous claims in the book, rivaled only by the strange implication that one scientist, Paul Lewis, may have committed suicide by infecting his cigarettes with yellow fever as inspired by a Sinclair Lewis novel printed 3 years before his death. As far as I can tell, that last one is pure speculation on Barry's part; I think the book is impeccably researched, and it's always made very clear when he's saying something a little out there that he is, in fact, being speculative. However, some of it is pretty weird, and I think he goes too far in creating "characters" near the end of the book, especially in regards to Lewis.
The section detailing the pandemic itself was the least interesting part of the book for me. It's a very detailed analysis, with tons of scary statistics, but it gets repetitive. He discusses the impact of the disease in Philadelphia, one of the hardest hit cities in America, in great detail, and also goes into great detail about the Army camps that were worst hit. He traces the epidemic all over the world, talking about India and South Africa and even how hard the disease hit the Eskimos. He seems to realize how repetitive it gets, even trying to embrace it by repeating the phrase "afterall this was only influenza" many times. I think he would have done better to cut out some of the repetition rather than highlight it. Lord knows the book was plenty long; it didn't need filler. As horrifying as the violent symptoms of the disease, the high mortality rates for young adults, and just the sheer number of deaths are, I still found this to be the least engaging part.
Also of note, I thought, was Barry's love of T.S. Eliot. I can think of at least 3 references to Eliot's work in the course of the book. He also quotes from "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost, but he kind of butchers it. The whole poem is less than ten lines, but he chooses three disjointed ones and makes it sound terrible. I was offended, but what can you expect from someone who likes T.S. Eliot?
Possibly the best part of the whole book, aside from learning that "epizootic" is the term for an epidemic in animals, is when he follows up the typical "thanks to everyone who helped me in my research; all errors are, of course, my own" caveat in his acknowledgements with a parenthetical -- "Wouldn't it be entertaining to once read an acknowledgement in which the author blames others for any mistakes?"(464) Why, yes, it would.

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