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

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  17,043 Ratings  ·  1,449 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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Krystal Viking Press is the publisher under the Penguin Books imprint for the paperback edition and Penguin Audio for the audio version. (…moreViking Press is the publisher under the Penguin Books imprint for the paperback edition and Penguin Audio for the audio version. (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/bo...) (less)

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Stephen
Oct 09, 2007 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
...more
Matt
Aug 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: medicine, history
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
Dave
Sep 19, 2007 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
...more
Mike
Nov 28, 2008 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
Sherry Sharpnack
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
As an immunizing pharmacist who lived through the craziness of the early onset (October) of the swine flu pandemic of 2009, I have long been interested in the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19. What were the circumstances? Why did so many young people die, when usually it’s infants and the elderly?

I was hoping this book would answer those questions, and in part, it did. However, I really did not need a history of medicine in general (back to Galen?!), laboratory medicine in particular, and med
...more
Mike
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
Joel
May 17, 2007 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
...more
Sara W
Apr 28, 2009 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
Kimba Tichenor
Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
The title is a bit of a misnomer. Although the Great Influenza of 1919 was a pandemic, the author focuses exclusively on its history in the United States. As several other reviewers have noted, this book could have benefited from a good edit. A significant share of the book focuses on the history of medicine in the United States prior to the Great Influenza, providing biographical information on medical researchers both who would play a role in trying to find an effective treatment for the disea ...more
Mike (the Paladin)
Nov 30, 2012 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
...more
Clif
Mar 05, 2009 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
...more
Florence
Feb 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a very frightening book. We usually consider the flu to be a non life threatening disease. Not true in 1918. The disease killed millions in a worldwide pandemic. The actual number of fatalities can never be known because medical systems were so overwhelmed that many people were dying at home without ever seeing a medical professional. The grisly details of how ordinary people suffered are in this comprehensive book. Also covered are scientific descriptions of bacteria and viruses that a ...more
Mike
Nov 03, 2012 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
...more
Lena
Dec 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Paul
Aug 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, science
It was a book, only a book.

I have to keep telling myself this because even though author John M. Barry apparently felt like he was writing the tome to end all tomes about this chapter in world history – including the hideous phrase, "It was influenza, just influenza" over and over and over again – in the end, what he created was a terrific 200-page story of the world's deadliest pandemic wrapped in 250 pages of overwritten irrelevance.

Barry spent seven years working on this book, and it shows. B
...more
Mike
Aug 24, 2009 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
...more
Thomas Paul
Nov 18, 2011 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
...more
Kay
"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
Patti
Jul 07, 2009 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
...more
Jeff
Nov 29, 2008 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
Stacy
May 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Very educational and interesting. Compelling
Nikki
Jan 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Whew. The Great Influenza is a heck of a read: there’s a lot of information, and it takes quite a while to get to the actual point of the epidemic, because first it covers certain aspects of medical history. As with so many books like this, in places it becomes a sort of biography of the greats who were involved — it’s going to be interesting to see pop-science deal with the increasingly team-based approach to science, without central characters to pin the narrative on. In many ways, this is mor ...more
❀⊱Rory⊰❀
Aug 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
100 years ago this year and scary as heck!
Lizzy
Jul 07, 2009 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
...more
Carole
Jan 23, 2008 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
...more
Ken
Oct 05, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
Hadrian
Jan 31, 2011 rated it liked it
Bit slow, and could use a good editor. A merely adequate history of one of the greatest epidemics in history.
Rachel

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
Melinda
Dec 16, 2009 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
...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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“The foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying.” 1 likes
“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
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