Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Influenza - John Barry

Sub-title: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history

My good friend Katherine recommended this after seeing I'd read another of this author's books, Rising Tide.  It's the story of the 1918-1920 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people and possibly as many as 100 million people worldwide.

The author weaves the evolution of modern medicine in America and the politics of enforced patriotism during World War I to set the stage for the devastation of the disease.

In the late 1890's, medicine in America was finally emerging from the dark ages.  John Hopkins Medical School was founded and medicine began to have standards for education levels and training, rising to the level of a true scientific discipline.  The early medical scientists and researchers were pioneers in virology.

The author explains how the influenza virus attacks the body and why it is so deadly and constantly requires the development of new vaccines.  In the pandemic, it was particularly lethal to young adults (18-30) because their immune systems launched massive attacks against the virus that left debris in the lungs leading to pneumonia and death.

He also portrays the political climate leading up to America getting into WWI.  President Wilson was adamant that this was a righteous war and there would be no dissent.  Young men were drafted and trained on an enormous scale, leading to crowding and dispersion that was the perfect petri dish for spreading the flu.

Once again, Barry paints a picture of the time and place before revealing the event.  The virus eventually weakens as it is passed along and after a time subsides.  It is quite possible that a new pandemic could occur  again in the world.

Published: 2004  Read: May 2013  Genre: History

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