The Great Influenza

by John M. Barry

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The Great Influenza Characters

The main characters in The Great Influenza are William Henry Welch, Simon Flexner, William Gorgas, Woodrow Wilson, Oswald Avery, William Park, and Anna Williams.

  • William Henry Welch was an influential American medical researcher and educator known for connecting the scientific community together.
  • Simon Flexner was the director of the Rockefeller Institute.
  • William Gorgas was the US Army Surgeon General; in that role, he helped prepare the military for the pandemic.
  • Woodrow Wilson was the active president during the influenza pandemic.
  • Oswald Avery was a Rockefeller Institute researcher who made a pivotal discovery about DNA.
  • William Park and Anna Williams were central influenza researchers who ran a laboratory in New York.


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William Henry Welch

William Welch was “arguably the single most influential scientist in the world” during the time of the influenza pandemic. Welch began his career in medical science at a time when American medicine lagged significantly behind European medicine. While studying in Germany, Welch recognized the “means by which German science had achieved such stature.” His goal was to bring these elements to the United States, ultimately revolutionizing American medicine. He succeeded. By World War I, American medicine was leading the rest of the world.

Welch himself did not achieve any important discoveries in the laboratory. However, he was “an extraordinarily useful conduit” in that he was able to connect scientists from across his network, allowing ideas to flow and important research to take form. His legacy “lay in his ability to stir other men’s souls.” As an educator and as a leader, Welch had enormous impact and lived “a revolutionary life.”

Simon Flexner

Simon Flexner was an important member of the first generation of modern American medical scientists. He was a protégé of William Welch and “a brilliant scientist in his own right.” In 1901, Flexner became the first director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In the progression of American medicine, the Institute “would change everything.” In 1910, Flexner’s own research significantly reduced the mortality rate for the most common bacterial meningitis.

Flexner retained “a roughness” his entire life. Colleagues spoke of his “steely precision” and “a logic… final as a knife.” As a leader, Flexner had “a large vision” and “welcomed openness,” though he could be ruthless. Even in his relationship with Paul Lewis, who referred to him as a father figure, Flexner was blunt when needed. During the pandemic, Flexner directed the work of many scientists to the study of influenza.

Rufus Cole 

Rufus Cole was the first director of the Rockefeller Institute Hospital. Contrary to what his superiors originally envisioned, Cole insisted that patients in the hospital be cared for by the same physicians conducting research on them. His persistence ultimately prevailed, creating “the model of clinical research.”

William Gorgas 

During World War I, William Gorgas served as Surgeon General of the Army. In that role, he was in charge of American military medicine as a whole. By 1918, Gorgas had “developed an international reputation.”

From the beginning of the war, Gorgas had a “nightmare” of a possible pandemic. This nightmare propelled him to prepare the army against infectious disease as much as possible, focusing on his goal that World War I “would be the first war in which fewer American soldiers died of disease than from combat.”

Although his military superiors often ignored or actively opposed his advice, Gorgas was able to accomplish a great deal in his role, mitigating much potential damage in the process.

Woodrow Wilson 

President Woodrow Wilson was leader of the United States during the 1918-19 pandemic. Although he had been initially reluctant to enter World War I, he championed it aggressively and mobilized the entire nation toward the war effort. Under Wilson, the federal government exercised tremendous control over every aspect of life, including the flow of information. Wilson’s focus on the war effort and his stifling of public health information were disastrous during the pandemic.

During the peace conferences following World War I, Wilson himself appeared to suffer the mental impacts of the influenza virus. If Wilson was indeed suffering from such symptoms, this complication of influenza had a profound impact on world history due to the results of the Paris treaty.

Rupert Blue 

During the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, Rupert Blue served as civilian...

(This entire section contains 1188 words.)

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surgeon general and head of the US Public Health Service. He was “a master bureaucrat” who had risen to a prominent position despite being considered a “lightweight” by the medical scientists of the time. During the pandemic, he “failed to heed warnings of, seek advance information about, or prepare for the epidemic.” Instead of addressing the pandemic, he actually opposed the progress of relevant research and was reluctant to interfere with the war effort.

Oswald Avery

Oswald T. Avery was a Canadian-American medical researcher at the Rockefeller Institute. In his study of influenza and pneumonia, Avery was obsessive, meticulous and persistent. Referring to the many obstacles and apparent dead ends he encountered, Avery said: “Disappointment is my daily bread. I thrive on it.” Avery had the ability to learn from his failures, using them to move forward toward his goal. He had the instinct to know which paths to pursue in the laboratory. He also had the discipline—learned through early mistakes—to refrain from announcing discoveries until he was absolutely certain of their validity. Ultimately, Avery “opened up the field of molecular biology” when he discovered that DNA carries genetic information.

William Park 

William Park was a medical researcher in New York City during the 1918-19 pandemic. As a researcher, Park was not primarily driven by wonder; he was driven by a strong sense of purpose, including “God’s purpose.”

Park created a laboratory that in 1918 was unmatched by any other laboratory in the world. Working alongside Anna Williams, he achieved “the mass production of inexpensive diphtheria antitoxin.” Park’s precision and sharp “sense of right and wrong” led to him having a public feud with Simon Flexner and the Rockefeller Institute.

During the pandemic, Park and Williams focused their work on studying influenza. The pair originally declared that Bacillus influenza was indeed the cause of the disease. Later, however, they reversed their position. 

Anna Williams

Anna Williams “had established herself as the premier woman medical scientist in America.” She worked alongside William Park in New York City; she and Park worked well together as a team. In contrast to Park, Williams “injected a certain wildness and creativity into the laboratory.” Outside of the laboratory, she enjoyed driving at high speeds and flying in airplanes with stunt fliers. While Anna sometimes felt isolated and unhappy in her accomplishments, she ultimately preferred a life of scientific exploration to an ordinary one.

Together, Park and Williams “were experts on vaccine therapy.” During the pandemic, they focused their work on studying influenza. The pair originally declared that Bacillus influenza was indeed the cause of the disease. Later, however, they reversed their position. 

Paul Lewis 

During the pandemic, Paul Lewis was a pathologist who served as head of the Henry Phipps Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. After the pandemic, Lewis began working at the Rockefeller Institute in the department of animal pathology. Despite his tremendous intellect and his close connection to Simon Flexner, Lewis’s work in the laboratory became “sterile.” In 1929, Lewis died while studying yellow fever in Brazil.

Richard Shope 

Richard Shope was a young scientist recruited to work with Paul Lewis at the Rockefeller Institute. Shope had both laboratory skills and his own ideas. In the laboratory, “his mind had a certain wildness,” and he often brought original concepts to his research.

Shope was described by colleagues as “one of the finest investigators.” In 1931, Shope published his ground-breaking discovery of the influenza virus he discovered in pigs, which turned out to be directly related to the 1918 virus.