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

I read The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History because I had read John M. Barry’s The Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and was impressed by his storytelling ability, coupled with impeccable research and understanding of the importance of context when writing about such events. He did not disappoint with this book.

The Great Influenza, as most of us know, occurred at a most vulnerable time for the United States and the world — during World War I. The first cases appeared at Camp Funston, part of the vast Ft. Riley, Kansas military reservation and the second largest cantonment in the country, with an average of 56,000 troops on post. The military was building up its strength at this time and the movement of troops between encampments and posts was accelerated, providing even greater conditions for the spread of the virus en route as soldiers traveled in tight quarters and then mixed with others at their destination.

The spread of the virus was underplayed by the authorities from the beginning, with concerns for the health of the country at odds with the need to participate and win the war. The virus didn’t play favorites — it devastated the well-being of the populace at home as it played havoc with the war effort and killed many of those who fought.

A good story, of course, has protagonists and heroes, and Barry is at his best at describing the efforts to find a vaccine or cure for a disease that would ultimately kill as many as 100 million people worldwide. We meet the scientists and doctors who worked at this effort, as well as the nurses who labored in dismal circumstances without adequate resources to care for the stricken. We witness the sometimes impossible task of burying all the dead, and the families who were decimated to the point that they couldn’t attend to each other — including the desperately ill or recently deceased.

Even when the story is somewhat familiar, a good storyteller will bring the reader to new information. For example, I learned that what was then called the Spanish flu was not because it originated in Spain, but because the Spanish newspapers were the only source of news about the flu — so great were the efforts to downplay its devastation. The source of the news became, in the minds of the world, the source of the disease.

I also learned that President Wilson became extremely ill with the flu end of the war. Although he participated in the peace negotiations, his behavior was erratic and he abandoned principals that he had previously insisted on, yielding to Prime Minister Clemenceau’s formula of German reparations and Germany accepting all responsibility for starting the war. It is believed that this change in Wilson’s behavior and outlook could have been an aftereffect of his illness. One might suppose that the events in the years following the treaty might also have been different, if the German nation hadn’t felt humiliated.

I am not a history scholar or even a good student, but have found again and again that a well-written book on an event or individual of historical significance can lead me to another such book. It is a benefit for which I am truly thankful.