The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History

Book Review

            This is a critical analysis of the book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of The Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry. Barry studied in the University of Rochester where he got an MA degree in history. He has also spent a considerable time working as a journalist. He has written several books and articles for different journals. Moreover, his work has been recognized by different bodies and organizations such as The National Academy of Sciences and The Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens. Barry is on the advisory board of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (MIT, 2007).

Barry’s aim for writing the book was probably to tell the story of what he considers the deadliest plague in history. He begins his book by giving a history of the plague in Philadelphia. As one reads on, he or she realizes that the author’s main focus is not the disease but he has looked at the pandemic in a scientific way and the effects of politics where the pandemic was concerned. There seems to be a relation between the war and disease. Barry notes that in many wars that were there in the past, many men have been killed by disease more than the war. This can easily be explained by the congestion that was in the military camps.

The story of the pandemic begins before 1918. Barry gives the history of medicine from the time of Hippocrates to the time of Galen and the discoveries made in the nineteenth century. He goes on to give the various ways through which people used some traditional methods to reduce the symptoms and the effects of smallpox. Though the methods seem unorthodox, they worked. This is what actually contributed to the discovery of the smallpox vaccine ending years of pain and suffering. Barry is keen to note that in the United States, people rarely deviated from the use of traditional methods to cure and prevent diseases. They were not interested in finding new ways to deal with the disease and they were therefore left behind when the rest of the world was progressing in research and finding cures.

There was a huge scarcity of professional men who practiced medicine in the United States. Women were not allowed to learn medicine. The available universities that were in the US were not very much concerned with the academic qualifications of the students they were taking in. this was contrary to Europe where people had changed their views where medicine was concerned. They had taken the profession with the seriousness it deserved and they had already established institutions where people could advance their studies. Those who were interested in medicine had to have a knowledge of the sciences, notably chemistry and biology.

In later nineteenth century, the Americans realized that they had to do something about this situation. A group of people came up with ideas that would revolutionize this noble profession. The book begins the first chapter with the opening of Johns Hopkins University an institution they hoped would change the way medicine was taught and practiced. Barry speaks briefly of the situation in America then, in what seems to be a comparison of the grand event with the ongoing war. He also makes a comparison between religion and science.

The first chapter has been titled Warriors, a title that reflects much of what is discussed. The warriors are not only those who fought in the war, but those who also chose to practice medicine. His focus on this first part is the men who practiced medicine especially in America although he does include a few from Europe. The medicine practitioners and researchers were fighting to prevent disease and to provide different cures for different ailments. This comparison of the war, politics and the pandemic is something that covers the entire book. Barry has shown how politics can worsen a situation.

The use of lies makes things worse and so does covering the situation. However, lies are not only in politics. In the medicine world, Barry notes that doctors will often do what they have to when they are facing a desperate situation. He gives the example of doctors who administer drugs to patients knowing that the drugs will not help in curing the disease (Barry 24). The book also gives the achievements of some doctors who made notable contributions then. Though this is a good idea, he tends to overdo it such as he gives the example of Lewis who was a major contributor of medicine during his time.

He is not consistent in some of the issues. For instance, the reader first encounters Lewis in the prologue. He is not encountered in the subsequent chapters and will only be featured in the later chapters. He gives other details that are not relevant to the topic at hand. Another person who is given prominence by Barry is Welch. He gives very many details of his life and one can be led to think that he was the most important person during that time. Though his work may have been important, one feels that Barry was looking for ways to fill the book. This is because some of the details he gives such as the amount of money that people were earning are hardly something to write about in a book that is supposed to address the issue of influenza.

Other points of irrelevance occur when he gives the names of people who studied at Harvard and Yale and who headed which institution. This deviates from the flu. The first part of the book is actually filled with details that can be omitted since they do not report on the pandemic. The sad part about this part of the book is that the people he has chosen to concentrate on were not instrumental in finding the cure for the disease. He has also not included those who were more important such as Oswald Avery.

Chapter six of the book begins by giving the specifics of Kansas since this is where the epidemic began. He gives an account of how the people lived and how the animals were reared. This is important because the flu often attacks the animals and the disease is then passed on to people. This part of the book is the most interesting to read. Details about the influenza are given in this second part of the book. His main focus is the effects of the disease in America. Most of the remaining part of the book focuses on the effects of the First World War on the pandemic.

Apart from the authorities, the press at that time did not do much to cover the disease when it first started. Like Barry notes, they were busy covering the war and giving less significant things prominence. The virus spread from Kansas to other parts of the world as people went to fight in the war. Although they were not sick when they were leaving, they carried the virus and infected the people they met in different parts of the world. This way the virus spread from America to Europe and Asia.

Barry is neither a scientist nor a doctor. He has written the book using a language that is easy to understand. The book is useful to people interested in studying the history of medicine in America and to those in the medicine field. It is also useful to those interested in politics since it has shared views of what the people who were in authority back then dealt with the issue. It can actually act as a guide on what or what not to do in such times. For those who are studying history and the effects of war this is a book that could come in handy. It shows the magnitude and consequences of the pandemic (Palese 2004).

Since there were no official records kept, it was not easy to estimate the number of people who died. People died everywhere and they were left to rot. There were no people left to dig the graves. The doctors and nurses were overwhelmed. The author explains the sad realities of the situation in such explicit details that one cannot help but paint a picture in his head. He has tried to explain the sad circumstances without being sentimental although when a person is reading it is hard for him not to be emotional.

Some of the details given especially how colleges could just admit any man to study medicine and the fact that they studied without patients is an eye-opener. It makes a person appreciate the efforts of those who revolutionized the system in the nineteenth century. Another worrying fact is how the leadership was during that time. Barry has captured this in an interesting way and has not hidden the fact that the society was facing many ills back then. A major weakness of the book is that it has too many details.

It has included the history of medicine, universities in the US as they were in the nineteenth century, the pandemic, great scientists and their achievements, the war, politics and policies and the author’s predictions about the future (Barry 455). It covers a vast range of topics some of which are not related. The inclusion of the history of vaccines is important but other details do not prove as much. Though a larger part of the world is no longer at war and there have been developments where medicine is concerned, a similar situation could still arise. I would definitely recommend this book to someone though for a person who wants to know about the flu, it would be better if he or she started reading from the second part of the book.

The scientists, researchers, doctors and other concerned people during that time were at first not aware of what caused the pandemic. They did not see it coming and were therefore at a loss when it hit them. One only has to look at the incurable diseases today to see that there is not much difference. This is something that Barry has noted and he has included examples of the avian flu and the SARS virus. When the H1N1 virus was reported, some few people lost their lives before a vaccine was developed. There is still no cure for diseases such as AIDS and conditions such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease. However, the leaders seem to have learnt a lesson especially when dealing with crises of a similar magnitude.


Works Cited

Barry, John. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Penguin 2005. Print.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. John M. Barry. October 25 2007. Web. 24 June 2010.

Palese, Peter. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. July 15 2004. Web. 24 June 2010.


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