(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Americans are enjoying a renewed sense of security at the dawn of the millennium. After a half century of war and Cold War, the nation thrives in the peace and basks in its prosperity. Its enemies are too weak and preoccupied to be truly frightening. The threat of nuclear war seems to be receding, too. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the most terrifying plague of modern times, appears less implacably deadly as new treatments emerge and careful precautions become known. In a variety of ways, from consumption habits to the declining size of the family, Americans are signaling a sanguine confidence in the future and acting as if the days to come will predictably conform to expectations.

However, apocalypse is never far from the human imagination. Even in their happiness, Americans titillate themselves with predictions of millennial calamity. The prospect of an Armageddon seems to satisfy a deep and enduring need. From time to time, humans must remind themselves, however transiently, that they are still mortal and subject to the limits of the human condition. For all the glitter and weight of American cities and the power and ingenuity of American machines, the earth occasionally yaws uncontrollably beneath one’s feet. Beyond the comfortable light of civilization lies a primordial darkness.

Gina Kolata, a science reporter for The New York Times, has exposed a chink in the armor of American complacency with her book Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. Her account of a common malady’s appalling potential for destructiveness neatly taps into the apocalyptic shadows that haunt humankind. Though Kolata is a serious and sensible investigator who is interested only in informing her public, her book makes for chilling reading. The implications of her research are fully as disturbing as the fictional menaces of lurid thrillers. She reveals both the fragility of flesh and the frailty of institutions.

The culprit cited in her book is not some exotic affliction from the dense recesses of a violated jungle or a meteor dropped from above. She writes of the flu, a regular, indeed routine, visitor to millions of homes every year. In 1918, however, an extremely virulent strain of influenza appeared and left an unprecedented trail of devastation.

No one is certain about where this virus originated. Rather unfairly, this virus was termed the “Spanish flu.” Beginning in September, 1918, the Spanish flu ravaged most of the known world, all but wiping out many Eskimo villages in the far north while also killing 20 percent of the western Samoan population. By the time the disease burned itself out, forty million people may have died. Some estimates put the death toll as high as one hundred million. The exact figure will never be certain because many victims perished beyond the reach of modern recordkeeping. Even in the most scientifically advanced societies of the time, authorities lost track of the influenza’s mortality rate because the sheer number of casualties proved overwhelming. The 1918 influenza outbreak was by far the most deadly pandemic in human history.

During the epidemic, dissolution could come with a demoralizing speed reminiscent of the Black Death of the fourteenth century. Instead of the normal death curve of an infectious disease, the mortality pattern of the 1918 influenza was W-shaped, striking hardest at children under age five, the elderly over age seventy, and surprisingly, people aged twenty to forty. Early symptoms included a headache, followed by burning eyes and then chills that no amount of blankets could overcome. Patients would become feverish and drift in and out of consciousness. The disease moved inexorably through the body, the course of its progress ranging from just hours to days. As the end neared, the faces of victims would turn a deep brownish purple. They began coughing up blood. Their feet went black. Breathing would become more difficult, until death finally came from suffocation. Autopsies revealed lungs clogged with a bloody fluid.

In the United States alone, more than 25 percent of the population became ill. A half million Americans died. A type of disease that normally produced a mortality of just one-tenth of 1 percent killed 2.5 percent of its victims. The death toll was such that in 1918 the average life span in the United States dropped by twelve years. To compare, a similar outbreak at the end of the twentieth century would kill one and a half million Americans, a winnowing greater than the number of lives claimed in a year by the combined efforts of heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary diseases, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Kolata writes effectively about the horrors of 1918. A great pall of fear fell over the world as the disease ran its course. In America and Europe, the flu intensified the loss of life of World War I. Medical researchers labored in...

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