The story of the 1918 Influenza pandemic is a tale full of information useful for the times we live in today, and John Barry tells it well. My only serious criticism of the book is that it is a tad wordy as Barry runs off on lengthy, extensive biographical tangents that are nice, but could be a lot shorter and serve their purpose in the telling of the story.
Barry’s approach is to lay a foundation with the story of the emergence of scientific medical research in the 19th and early 20th Centuries in Europe and the United States, and then build the story of medical frustration with an unknown disease on that foundation.
The best of science did not discern that it was a virus, not a bacterium, that caused the flu. In fact the existence of viruses was only slightly understood at the time. The actual virus was not identified (and it’s still uncertain that it was identified) until the 1940’s but the major discovery of that research was Oswald Avery’s finding that DNA carried the genes and chromosomes that define heredity.
The pandemic is thought to have started at a small town near an Army base in Kansas. The base trained new recruits who often traveled to the town, and when they shipped out to other parts of the country and over to Europe to fight in World War I, they carried the flu with them. It became known as “The Spanish Flu” because government of Spain was the first to admit of the flu’s existence.
In Barry’s epilogue he raises a concern about the export manufacture of medical supplies, such as protective gear and therapeutic machinery, to overseas locations — the very situation we face today. Perhaps his most dire warning is that in the face of a pandemic, political leadership must be brutally honest with the people to give them a shot at getting through it without panic.
During the 1918 pandemic President Wilson lied about it to maintain the country’s focus on the war efforts being made in Europe. We face the same situation today, although the reasons for President Trump’s untruthful presentation of the Coronavirus situation are unclear..
Santayana said it first, but many have since said that those who do not learn history are destined to repeat it. Sadly, we are repeating this history in a horrible way.