Last Reviewed on May 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275
Gina Kolata opens Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It with a riddle: Why is her knowledge of the deadly 1918 “Spanish Flu” sketchy, even though she studied microbiology and virology in college and has written on science and medicine for publications such as the New York Times? Kolata’s puzzlement deepens when she considers that the 1918 pandemic killed more people in the US in a single year than World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined.
Kolata states that she is not alone in her ignorance of the 1918 pandemic. Despite its deathly sweep, the disease has been overlooked by history for some reason. Kolata’s own interest in the pandemic is piqued when she comes across an article in Science that explores the first attempts to resurrect the virus’s genetic code. Written by scientist Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, the paper sends Kolata on the heels of “one of the worst killers known” in history: the 1918 influenza virus.
Chapter 1: The Plague Year
The flu that arrived suddenly in the US in the fall of 1918 sickened many, especially the young and the healthy. It started with a headache and shivering, and soon wore down the patient. Within a few days, some began to cough up blood; many died gasping for breath. An autopsy almost always revealed lungs “lying heavy and sodden” in the chest, full of fluid. By 1919, the plague had left between twenty and one hundred million dead globally.
One of the most unusual aspects of the disease is that it particularly targeted the young and healthy, those between twenty and forty years of age. Yet despite its devastating effect, the pandemic has been tucked away in memory. Perhaps this is because people conflated it with the horrors of World War I and wanted to forget about it, according to Alfred W. Crosby, a historian of the 1918 flu.
The flu struck in two waves. The first wave, initially noted in the spring of 1918 in the Spanish seaside resort of San Sebastian (hence the name “Spanish flu”) was benign and vanished with the summer. But soon, it was “back with a vengeance.” In the US, the second wave arrived in August 1918, with sailors docked at the Commonwealth Pier in Boston. On August 28, eight of the sailors had the flu. The next day, fifty-eight did. Soon, the flu entered the civilian population, and the first three deaths occurred on September 3. On the same day, the flu also reared its head in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, thirty miles from Boston. Soon, it had spread like wildfire across the United States.
Death from the flu was observed in meticulous detail by the novelist Tom Wolfe, who watched Ben, his twenty-six-year-old brother, struggle from the disease. In a fictionalized account of the event, Wolfe described the characteristic red spots on his brother’s cheeks—a sign of oxygen deprivation—and his “rapid, unbelievable” gasps for breath. As Ben’s condition worsened, his breathing eased, and delirium set in. He finally sunk into unconsciousness, his eyes almost closed. As Wolfe prayed for him, Ben drew his last, feeble breath.
In 1918, nothing much could be done for patients like Ben. No one knew how to treat the flu or pump oxygen into sodden lungs. The influenza virus had not yet been isolated. Although scientists knew about viruses in 1918, no one had ever seen one, as the electron microscope had yet to be discovered. Even now, influenza is largely untreatable, though scientists have known for decades that the flu virus is made of eight simple strands of RNA. Scientists may be able to recognize the egg-shaped appearance of the flu virus, but they still cannot eliminate it.
The best way to tackle an influenza pandemic is through vaccines. For a long time, there was no headway on the...
(The entire section contains 1275 words.)
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