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

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  32,863 ratings  ·  4,127 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, 546 pages
Published October 4th 2005 by Penguin Books (first published February 9th 2004)
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Antonia Because viruses mutate rapidly, there have been no successful vaccines that are 100% cures. This book describes how medical science and the brilliant …moreBecause viruses mutate rapidly, there have been no successful vaccines that are 100% cures. This book describes how medical science and the brilliant men and women who practiced it came into the fore. Modern medicine has come leaps and bounds, but the same old preventatives against contagion prevail: wash your hands, avoid crowds, quarantine. (less)
Maria Rose I would give it about a 6 in reading if you can skip over some of the technical details which are great if you are doing research on these scientists'…moreI would give it about a 6 in reading if you can skip over some of the technical details which are great if you are doing research on these scientists' methods, it does present the situation well in terms of the 1918 period, which we all know was during WW1. The most interesting was a presentation of the mindset of Woodrow Wilson (less)

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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
Mario the lone bookwolf
Mar 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Pandemics recur, just as history repeats itself, and it´s all simply a question of how much can be learned from it and how far technology has marched on.

They were at war, so they couldn´t tell that there were outbreaks, only the neutral Spain could say it without the danger of demotivating the population. Today there are mostly just trade wars anymore, but the rules have stayed the same and looking at the potential immense economical damage, the intuition of those trying to hide outbreaks was
Aug 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: medicine, history
“Epidemiological evidence suggest that a new influenza virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas, early in 1918. Evidence further suggests that this virus traveled east across the state to a huge army base, and from there to Europe. Later it began its sweep through North America, through Europe, through South America, through Asia and Africa, through isolated islands in the Pacific, through all the wide world. In its wake followed a keening sound that rose from the throats of mourners like the ...more
Jun 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
“Influenza killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.”

Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, the Spanish-flu infected 500 million people–about a third of the world's population at the time. The death toll is estimated between 17 million and 50 million, some even claim 100 Million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

The Spreading

San Francisco military parade 1918

It began when sick farm animals infected soldiers in Kansas during t
Apr 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As the world is wrapped up in the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought that I would try to educate myself a little more on the general topic while forced to isolate with books. I have often wanted to know a little more about the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19, which was said to be one of the worst pandemics in modern times. As we are in something similar at present, I turned to John M. Barry’s book to permit me to speak with ease as it relates to the spread of infection and the reactions by the public and ...more
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
Oct 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library
This book was so much more than I expected. It provides a history of American medicine, especially the development of modern day medical schools, an explanation of viruses, histories of other epidemics. At times, the book reads like a science text. Don’t go into this expecting a light read. But kudos to Barry for making complicated subjects easy to understand.
The book walks the reader through the lead up to the Influenza, especially how the war contributed to the problems. Somethings were appar
Dr. Appu Sasidharan
History is not only learning about the past but also learning from the past to shape our present and the future. This book in such a way is not only a compendium about the Spanish flu (1918 - 1920) but also a vivid description about the pattern of the current pandemic Covid-19 (Barry wrote this book in 2004) and also the pandemics that might happen in the future. Spanish flu is something every Medico might have studied during their Med school days. Still, this book gave me so much new informatio ...more
May 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a fascinating read about the 1918 flu pandemic, and a good overview of the history of medicine in America. I don't remember learning much about this topic in school — teachers seemed to treat it like more of a footnote to World War I, which was itself treated as a footnote to all the coverage of World War II.

But a friend had recommended this book to me more than a decade ago (he was always recommending big works of nonfiction), and it took the coronavirus outbreak for me to finally get
I read The Great Influenza last winter when the covid-19 pandemic started. I didn’t have time to write a review when I finished reading the book, and I also don’t have time to write a review now. But I want to urge everyone to get this book asap and turn right to chapter 6, where the documentation of the influenza of 1918 (also known as the “Spanish Flu”) starts. (You can read the first 5 chapters about the history of medicine later.)

Learning about the development of this pandemic will give you
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
4.5 stars -- Interestingly enough, the strongest part of this book in my opinion is the table setting that Barry does to describe the progress of American medical science and practice in the lead up to WWI. Learning about the transition from the heroic age of medicine to the early modern age of what we would recognize as a professionalized force of doctors and nurses was totally fascinating and gives a helpful window into how and why American attitudes towards doctors developed. That said, of co ...more
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
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
Roy Lotz
People write about war. They write about the Holocaust. They write about the horrors that people inflict on people. Apparently they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people, the horrors that make humans least significant.

Like so many people nowadays, I have been scrambling to wrap my mind around the current pandemic. This led me, naturally, to the last major worldwide outbreak: the 1918 influenza. I have a distant connection to this disease. My great-grandfather (after whom I was na
Dave Schaafsma
“Oh, it’s just influenza”--millions of people, some of them quoted in this book

So now during this 2020 pandemic I have not just read Great Novels and comics, but have delved for almost the first time into non-fiction books about medical history. I read Crisis in the Red Zone by Richard Preston about the 2014 Ebola Crisis centered in West Africa; I read the novelistic account of the medieval plague, A Journal of My Plague Year by Daniel DeFoe, I reread the fictional but moving The Plague by Camus
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
Laurie Anderson
Jun 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Lots of information in this book that applies to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joy D
Comprehensive look at the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50 million people worldwide. The author starts with a history of medical science, describing the common thoughts of the time immediately preceding the pandemic, and documenting the improvements made by notable institutions and scientists of the day. He traces the origins of the disease, likely in Kansas, and the spread of the disease through transfer and deployment of American military personnel ...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
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
Indra Nooyi
Jul 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
I recently read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, which tells the story and reminds us of the tragic toll of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. This book was an incredible walk through history, and there are profound sections that I have read and re-read over the past few weeks. This quote in particular struck a chord with me throughout my involvement with the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group:

"To have any chance in alleviating the devastation of the epidemic required organization, coordination
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
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
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
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
Nov 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommended to Susanna - Censored by GoodReads by: Scott Henderson
Started reading a book purportedly about the Spanish Flu, but so far is actually about the history of medical practice in the United States. Also if he calls Johns Hopkins University "The Hopkins" a few more times I'm going to smack him. Or his book, which will be closer to me. (I'm having flashbacks to Sean Wilentz and his freaking "The Democracy.")

ETA: 40% in and we're finally starting to deal with the flu epidemic. That's a long set-up section!
সালমান হক
Despite the writing being so poor(almost seemed like a first draft), this one hits home. 1920 and 2020. New century, new pandemic. We always thought that things cant get much worse, but reality surprises us. The researches, methods that was done back then may seem medieval , but it was what they had then.

Where are we with all this cutting edge technologies in 2020? I live in a country where students choose to read life science if they dont get into other disciplines(not talking about physicians
Kimba Tichenor
Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: american-history
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
Laura Noggle
Aug 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020, history
Apparently, we have learned absolutely nothing from history.

“Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.”

"Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that. Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate
Apr 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
There are still aspects to the 1918/19 "Spanish"flu pandemic that elude us. It likely originated in Kansas, not Spain. It killed more civilians than soldiers and was the 20th Century's most lethal pandemic except for AIDS. Even today, we are still dealing with its after-effects as it mutates and returns to attack human beings every few years, making vaccines only partially effective.

THE GREAT INFLUENZA is a fascinating book, not lacking in detail. It is unlikely that the death count would have
Feb 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: wwi
The Great Influenza by John Barry is an important book that is equal part history and equal part science discussing the 1918 Flu. The book is written almost exclusively about the American impacts towards and from the flu. The book spends more than half the pages discussing immunologists and their groundbreaking work on infectious diseases, especially influenza and pneumonia. As a result it took Barry a few hundred pages to hit the meat of the book.

We learn that the deadly strain of 1918 influenz
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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 1918 and 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 (Vikin ...more

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“Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that.
Those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”
“Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.” 15 likes
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