Book Review: The Great Influenza – John M. Barry

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A little over a century ago, a similar scenario like the one we’re seeing with COVID-19 in 2020 played out. The 1918 influenza pandemic lasted almost three years. It did not start in Spain (it’s often called the “Spanish flu”), but instead instead in a small, rural town in Kansas.

It spread rapidly all on its own. It was a killer. But it became a pandemic because President Woodrow Wilson decided to take America into World War I.

Once Wilson committed to the war, he decided that victory over the Germans (particularly) wasn’t enough. He wanted to annihilate them (this attitude carried over into the crushing terms imposed on them through the Treaty of Versailles, and these two factors were huge in the rise of Adolph Hitler to power). That vengefulness meant sending every available man to Europe as quickly as possible.

Among those men were young men from the Kansas town that had been hit so hard by influenza. They were the original super spreaders. The US military took major hits. Then those military members hit big cities: Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, to name a view, and civilians began to take a big hit as well.

The 1918 influenza spread through the United States and the rest of the world like wildfire, with a probable death toll of up to 150 million.

Scientists were baffled and raced around looking for the cause. Some scientists made up their own on-the-fly vaccines as stabs at seeing what would work. Doctors returned to medieval practices, such as bloodletting and applying leeches, and throwing medicines meant for other diseases at their dying patients.

Politicians lied, first denying the problem, and then downplaying it (the one exception was the mayor of San Francisco). They did more harm than good because they didn’t implement public health measures right away. In places where they did shut things temporarily, they reopened as quickly as possible, while influenza was still raging. They imposed onerous restrictions on the press, which was not allowed to report on what was really happening.

Wilson initiated all of this for his own self-interests. He was determined to destroy Germany, and influenza (cautions, restrictions, health measures) wasn’t going to get in the way of that. Ironically, Wilson himself contracted influenza around the time when the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated in Paris.

Accounts from some of the people closest to Wilson noted significant changes to the President that impacted the negotiations. Within a few months, Wilson suffered a severe and debilitating stroke (modern scientists suspect the cause was his bout with influenza), from which he never recovered (his wife and a close aide ran the country for the remainder of his term).

There was not a word publicly spoken or written about Wilson’s health during this time, and official reports propped him up as being fully in charge as president of the country.

The country was not ready for a pandemic. The world was not ready for a pandemic.

But it came anyway.

History repeats itself. You will feel like you’re reading about COVID-19 when you read this book. It’s chilling. There were some scientific and medical voices of reason during the Great Influenza Pandemic. They were silenced or ignored or marginalized. The loudest voices were those of the least wise, the least informed, and the most self-centered.

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