The Great Influenza Themes

The main themes in The Great Influenza are scientific exploration, the importance of leadership, nature versus science, and the value of truth.

  • Scientific exploration: The book traces the various research techniques of several key American scientists seeking the origins of the 1918 influenza virus.
  • The importance of leadership: During the pandemic, the quality of leadership in the scientific and military communities proved critical.
  • Nature versus science: The pandemic shows how the immense powers of nature outstrip the human capacity for scientific understanding.
  • The value of truth: The book illustrates the importance of truth in both the scientific and political spheres.


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Last Updated on August 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1251

Scientific Exploration

A key narrative of The Great Influenza is the story of scientific exploration. In the prologue, John M. Barry writes that the story of the 1918-19 pandemic is “a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and of how one changes the way one thinks.” In the first chapters, Barry describes the shift of perspective that took place in the medical world in the eighteenth century, when medicine shifted from a foundation of abstract reasoning to a foundation of empirical science. This shift can be understood on a philosophical level by examining the questions science asks and how those questions are answered.

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Barry writes: “The two most important questions in science are ‘What can I know?’ and ‘How can I know it?’” The pursuit of these questions leads scientists to “the frontier” as they push themselves to the edge of what they know. This type of exploration requires courage, a comfort with uncertainty, and a special type of judgment. These qualities necessary for successful scientific exploration are what set certain scientists in the book apart from others. Only a few of them possessed the “instinct for what mattered and the ability to pursue it vertically and connect it horizontally.”

William Welch lacked the “deeper wonder” to focus on one specific scientific question, but he had the ability to connect the work of one scientist to the work of another. Oswald Avery, however, was captured by wonder. He “tugged at a thread and kept tugging, untangling it, following where it led”; ultimately, his “obsessive” study of pneumococci opened up the world of molecular biology. Paul Lewis possessed genius and potential, yet he lacked Avery’s instinct. In the laboratory, he “could not find the right loose thread to tug at.” He could not utilize his failures to either redirect him or come to a deeper understanding. Unlike Welch, he did not recognize his own inability in the laboratory. He simply kept trying, and ultimately failing. Through these portraits, Barry shows the various paths scientific exploration can take.

The Importance of Leadership 

Leadership is a prominent theme throughout The Great Influenza. The book focuses on individuals with power, illustrating how the use—or misuse—of power can have widespread consequences.

In the scientific community during the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919, key leaders included William Welch and Simon Flexner. Under their guidance—and under the guidance of those they led—American medicine was revolutionized. As a teacher, Welch had the ability to inspire his students and to create a culture of unity at the Hopkins. Both he and Flexner were able to identify the strengths of others and understand how those strengths could complement the larger work of medical science. As the leader of the Rockefeller Institute, Flexner was able to make difficult decisions and direct the work of others. Flexner gave scientists time and space to explore; when Lewis first came to the Institute, Flexner told him that he would “expect nothing from him for a year.” Like Welch at the Hopkins,...

(The entire section contains 1251 words.)

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Chapter Summaries