The Great Influenza – book review

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry- is a meticulously well documented study first  published in 2004 and remains one of the best books ever written about the 1918 world wide flu pandemic. You might think that such a book would be dry reading, but the author keeps the focus on the  human aspects of the story rather than the statistics.

It was the perfect storm of disease. Three events converged in 1918. The strain of flu that year was one of the deadliest ever known. Young strong people who got the disease often died within 24 hours. It also happened to be the coldest winter in a century, which meant people were spending a lot of time huddled inside together to keep warm, creating a breeding ground for the virus. The third and final event was that World War I was causing millions of people to be on the move, spreading the disease across the planet. By the time the pandemic was over, more than 100 million people had died from the flu. That is more than died as a result of World War I itself.

The book shows the exhaustive efforts of doctors working to try to create an effective vaccine. By 1918 the medical field had reached what we would consider the modern era and this was the first major test of new techniques.

There are also a number of sad human stories, one of the saddest being that of U.S. Army Colonel Charles Hagadorn, a 51 year old career soldier who was commander of an Illinois training base (Camp Grant) that had swelled to a population of 40,000 due to the demands of the war. Colonel Hagadorn was a bachelor and the army was his life. He loved the men under his command and thought of them as “his boys”. When the brutal Midwest winter hit, he was concerned that many might freeze in their thin tents, and had the men relocated to the tight quarters of the wooden barracks and ordered extra stoves. He had seen some army memos warning about the flu, advising to keep  troops separated as much as possible. However, he thought the danger of the cold was far greater. When the flu struck the base it went through the men like wildfire and by the time it was through over 500 of the men had died. The final causality at Camp Grant was Colonel Hagadorn himself, who committed suicide when he realized what had happened to his boys as a result of his decision.

The scariest part of the book is when the author points out that today we are not much more prepared for a pandemic than they were in 1918. We have better communication and more advanced research facilities, but these are counter-balanced by the fact that air travel and a more  crowded world mean that any disease can cross the globe in far less time than it took in 1918.

This is a fascinating book, and includes many pictures and eyewitness accounts. It reads as if it were a novel. I will guarantee you that by the time you finish it you will find yourself involuntarily cringing whenever someone near you sneezes.

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