The Great Influenza by John M. BarryMy wife (and others) have been poking fun at me for some time now about my reading selection, but it wasn’t until I got about halfway through this latest tome when I realized just how weird my book selection has been the past half year or so. I’ve read books about what would happen to the world if humans disappeared, a poison gas attack, the assassination of a president, and a cholera epidemic. Needless to say, following it up with a book on the one of the worst pandemics in recorded human history seemed like a painful frosting on a depressing cake, but The Great Influenza was nonetheless next on my reading list.

As it turns out, this book by John M. Barry was a fascinating and often completely heartbreaking read. In terms of numbers killed, the estimates range from 40 all the way up to 100 million, and this damage was done in the incredibly short time period of roughly 18 months between the years of 1918 and 1919. The scale and scope of this particular flu was pretty much unprecedented, and due to bad decisions made by several different layers of both government and local officials, it spread completely out of control in a country that was trying desperately to maintain a patriotic fortitude while going into battle of the first world war.

Obviously, with so many people affected, this influenza wasn’t strictly limited to the United States, and while this book focuses in on domestic efforts to both combat (and seemingly ignore at the same time) the outbreak, it also spends a great deal of time talking about how it affected and spread around the world as well.

In leading up to the actual discussion of the pandemic itself, the book devotes entire chapters to the advancement of science and medicine in both Europe and the United States during the time period, giving a good background of how much progress was made in a short time. It’s this type of information that really makes the book an excellent read, capturing just how much progress was made in a short time (and under some fairly constricted circumstances in some cases).
Although it doesn’t go into great detail, the book touches on the fact that a pandemic flu could happen again at some point, and how we would be both better equipped (the evolution of science and industry to manufacture vaccines at a higher pace) and worse off (the greater prevalence of national and even world travel aiding the spread of the virus) in the event that it did.

In the end, the book was equal parts depressing and enlightening, with enough data and historical information to inform. With terms like “HN51” and “bird flu” being thrown around every six months or so with sometimes panicked overtones, this is a good book for historical reference.