Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, award-winning writer John M. Barry traces the arc of the deadly pandemic of 1918, a pandemic that may have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. Barry brings his journalistic skills as well as extensive medical research to bear on the story of the influenza and the medical men who tried to fight it. The result is a thorough yet gripping narrative of both the times and the events shaped by the pandemic.
After a brief prologue introducing Paul Lewis and his first encounter with the deadly flu, Barry turns to an analysis of medical education in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Shockingly, a college degree was not required for admission to medical school, and many students “often graduated without ever touching a patient.” William Henry Welch and the founders of The Johns Hopkins medical school envisioned a different system, modeled after German medical schools. In addition, Welch was instrumental in establishing The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and served as its first dean. In an ironic turn of events, the school was scheduled to open on October 1, 1918, but Welch was too ill with influenza to attend. However, he and other pioneers of medical and public health education had prepared an army of scientists and doctors ready to do battle with disease. As Barry writes, “On October 1, 1918, the abilities of that army were about to be tested by the deadliest epidemic in human history.”
In part 2, “The Swarm,” Barry turns his attention to the origins of the pandemic, arguing convincingly that the first cases of what came to be called the “Spanish influenza” really appeared in Haskell County, Kansas, early in 1918. Because one of the largest cantonments of Army troops was located at nearby Camp Funston, the virus spread eastward with the troops as they made their way toward Europe and the killing fields of the Western Front.
Indeed, it is likely that World War I created the pandemic, even though the virus did not originate among its participants. The United States’ entry into the war in April, 1917, created a huge demand for soldiers and placed extraordinary pressure on the structures that would house those soldiers. Army camps were disastrously overcrowded, as were troop ships. In addition, troops needed to be trained and sent on their way as quickly as possible; the overcrowding and the mobility of the troops, along with the virulence of the flu strain surfacing in the spring of 1918, created what Barry calls a tinderbox.
The first cases of flu in Europe appeared in Brest, France, shortly after American troops disembarked there in Apri1, 1918. The flu made the rounds of both the Allied and Axis armies that spring, and although a great number of soldiers took ill, few died from it. Nevertheless, Erich Van Ludendorff, the German commander, blamed the failure of the last German offensive on the illness of his troops: There simply were not enough men available to fight.
Meanwhile, the flu surfaced in Spain. Because Spain was a neutral nation, its press was not censored, as were American and European newspapers. Consequently, only Spanish newspapers reported on the flu, and the rest of the world began calling the illness sweeping through country after country the “Spanish influenza,” or the “Spanish Lady.”
Barry goes to great lengths to explain how the widespread but essentially nonlethal strain of flu that affected the world in the spring of 1918 transformed itself into a deadly killer by autumn of the same year. In addition to viral mutation, he blames public officials’ passivity in the face of the epidemic. Engaged in the first “total war” in United States’ history, the American military and political policy makers, focused on events in Europe, were unable and unwilling to address the rapidly growing epidemic at home. They failed to take measures that might have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Civil authorities routinely used wartime censorship of the press as the means by which they controlled and contained information about the disease. Moreover, in Philadelphia, as well as in other cities, officials refused to cancel public gatherings, such as large...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)
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