The Great Influenza

by John M. Barry

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Part 9: Lingerer Summary

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Chapter Thirty-One

The influenza virus of 1918 seemed to “[threaten] the existence of civilization.” Yet “nature intervened” in two ways. First, the process of immunity slowed the pandemic. Second, the virus itself mutated back to its normal, less lethal, forms.

Due to these processes, the people and the cities hit earliest in the pandemic were hit the hardest. In the United States, that included the East and the South, followed by the West coast. “The middle of the country,” which was hit the last, “suffered the least.”

By November 1918, the second wave of the virus seemed to dissipate. Yet in December and January, a “third wave broke over the earth.” In early 1919, one of the few places that had escaped the virus was Australia. During the third wave, the virus penetrated the continent. Although the virus was less lethal by that point, the Australian press and survivors saw it as “the Plague.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

The virus of 1918 was also found to attack the brain and the nervous system. Around the world, doctors observed mental instabilities in suffering patients. In 1927, the American Medical Association wrote that “the neuropsychiatric effects of influenza are profound and varied.” This specific complication of the 1918 virus “would, by terrible coincidence, have a profound effect indeed.”

In early 1919, French premier Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, and American President Woodrow Wilson spent months meeting to set the terms of peace for a post-war world. 

These sessions were “often brutal,” with particular conflict between Wilson and Clemenceau. In April, Wilson suffered a sudden attack of influenza. George and Clemenceau met with Wilson in his bedroom, as he was unable to get up, but the talks still “did not go well.”

When he was able to get up, Wilson “began to drive himself as hard as before,” leaving him vulnerable to complications of influenza. Those close to him noticed that his mind had lost “resiliency.” He became paranoid, obsessive, and easily fatigued.

Unexpectedly, Wilson “abandoned the principles he had previously insisted upon.” Within days, he went from threatening to leave the conference, to “[yielding] to Clemenceau everything of significance.”

Wilson agreed to terms presented by Clemenceau that were especially harsh for Germany. While some historians believe Wilson’s sudden change was a symptom of a mild stroke, the symptoms he suffered point to influenza.

The fallout of the Paris peace treaty in Germany was “economic hardship, nationalist reaction, and political chaos that fostered the rise of Adolf Hitler.” American diplomats and advisers were appalled by Wilson’s betrayal of principles; some even resigned. In one letter of resignation, Adolf Berle Jr. accused Wilson of consenting to “a new century of war.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

By the end of 1919, Sir William Osler, “one of the greatest clinicians in history” and one of the founding faculty of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, died of influenza. He had contracted the disease in September 1919, as influenza returned once again. Until January 1922, American cities would continue to see outbreaks before the virus finally disappeared.

One impact of the pandemic was the many orphans it left behind. According to the Red Cross, it also “left a trail of lowered vitality” as people still suffered physical and mental consequences of the disease.

Other consequences were “impossible to quantify.” The decisions of army leaders, which led to the deaths of many young men, weighed heavily on those leaders and sparked anger from loved ones left behind. In the aftermath of the war, in the “betrayal of ideals at Versailles,” and in “the utter failure of science,” the entire world seemed...

(This entire section contains 869 words.)

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“sick to the heart.”

Although the impact of the influenza pandemic was immense, “writers of the 1920s had little to say about it.” While this seems strange, it reflects what happened during the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. Barry notes that while writers often write about war, “they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people.”

During epidemics, historians observe that the powerful members of society often assign blame to others. While there were a few cases of “class antagonism” in the 1918 pandemic, it was not the overarching pattern. However, leadership still “failed to keep the community together,” because they lost trust. Through lies and false assurances, trust was broken. Barry writes that “it is impossible to quantify how many deaths the lies caused.”

In 1927, “the first significant attempt to quantify the death toll” put the number at twenty-one million, worldwide. Since that time, “every revision of the deaths… has been upward.” Some of the upper estimates are as high as one hundred million—over five percent of the global population at that time. The tragedy of the deaths was magnified by the fact that many of the victims were young adults. Due to urbanization, the Western world suffered the least. The virus “simply ravaged” the developing world, killing up to ten percent of the young adults in those countries.

Some positive outcomes of the 1918 pandemic included countries joining together to plan for “international cooperation on health.” In the United States, state and municipal public health measures were improved, many emergency hospitals became permanent, and the dream of the National Institutes of Health was sown. However, the virus “left its chief legacy in the laboratory.”

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