The Great Influenza Summary

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry is a 2004 book of historical nonfiction about the 1918 influenza pandemic that focuses in particular on the disease's impact on American society.

  • Barry traces the spread of the influenza virus, from its suspected origins in Haskell County, Kansas, to army bases to Europe and on to the rest of the world.
  • Barry examines the virus's origins, nature, and impact on the human body.
  • The medical research establishment had shifted greatly at the end of the nineteenth century, preparing it for a through study of influenza. Barry follows the key American scientists involved in the effort.


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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1302

Author John M. Barry begins The Great Influenza by giving an overview of the influenza pandemic that ravaged the world in 1918–19. For Barry, the pandemic is a story of struggle between modern science and nature. At the center of this narrative is a group of individual scientists involved in the pandemic.

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In part 1, Barry traces the massive shift in American medicine that occurred in the decades before World War I. For centuries, the study of medicine was guided by somewhat abstract reasoning. In the nineteenth century, medicine shifted toward a more empirical, scientific approach. The United States lagged behind, and in 1876, the Johns Hopkins University opened with the goal of revolutionizing American medicine.

A key member of this revolution would be William Welch. Under Welch’s guidance, the Johns Hopkins medical school would stand apart. Later, Welch succeeded in changing all of American medical education and in securing funds for medical research.

In 1901, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was created, with Simon Flexner as its director. The institute opened its own hospital for the study of contagious disease. Under Rufus Cole, its first director, the hospital became “the model for clinical research.” By World War I, American medicine had become “science-based.”

In part 2, Barry introduces the leading hypothesis that the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 began in Haskell County, Kansas, spreading from there to a nearby army base and eventually around the world. To understand how this happened, Barry explains what viruses do in the body and how they interact with the immune system. Influenza viruses have an ability to adapt quickly. This quality makes it easier for an influenza virus to spread from animals to humans, to change as it spreads from human to human, and to outpace the immune system’s efforts to recognize it.

In part 3, Barry describes the context of the pandemic. Although America had been reluctant to enter World War I, when it finally did, the entire nation became focused on the war effort. Millions of men were recruited and trained at huge army bases, civilians flocked to cities to work in factories, and information was censored to preserve morale.

The world of medicine also became mobilized for the war effort. Doctors and nurses served the military, leaving a shortage for civilians. Military medical research focused on a key goal: to contain the spread of infectious disease.

In part 4, Barry describes how, in the spring of 1918, the first wave of influenza spread across the world. While its spread was alarming, the disease itself was mild. Later, in the fall of the same year, the second wave broke and this time the virus was lethal. One of the first places that the virus emerged was at Camp Devens, an American army base. A group of leading medical scientists began their study of the frightening new disease.

In part 5, Barry tracks the “explosion” of the second wave of the influenza virus. He begins with Philadelphia, one of the first cities hit by the virus and a city that would become “a model for what would happen elsewhere.” Next, he describes the influenza outbreaks in army bases,...

(The entire section contains 1302 words.)

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