his book is a fascinating account of the influenza plague that erupted
in 1918 and killed millions of people around the world. However, this book is much more than just
an account of the epidemic, it also tells interesting information about the scientists and
politics which played such a crucial part of the story.
The opening section of the book gives a detailed account of the state of
medicine in the United States at the time. Medicine was primitive superstition, "doctors"
got degrees without ever performing a disection or studying anatomy, bleeding was still
believed to be a helpful treatment. A few men, led by a brilliant man named Welch, transformed
American medicine, founding the John Hopkins institute, emphasizing research and scientific
approach to health. John Hopkins is famous, but I never really knew why until I read this
book. Reading about these men almost made me wish I had gone into medicine as a career;
they changed America from a backwater to the world leader, even better than the best institutes
Just before the influenza breakout, America joined the Allied side in World
War I. It was amazing to read the all out effort that President Wilson directed when he
committed our nation to the war. Civil liberties were violated, no one was
permitted to speak ill of the war effort or American policy. Strict rationing was enforced
"voluntarily", people were exhorted to buy Liberty bonds, one out of eight women in the
entire country belonged to a chapter of the Red Cross. Unfortunately, the single minded
focus of the government on the war effort resulted in complete lack of focus on health issues,
so there was no attempts to stop the influenza epidemic as it got started. Censorship
blocked any word of the devastating disease, this fear of "hurting morale" by reporting the
truth led to complete distrust by the civlian population of all the happy talk about "only
The influenza plague apparently began with a mutated strain in the American
heartland, arriving at an army camp with a young soldier. The camps were densely packed, with
thousands of men streaming in and out, ideal breeding grounds for the lethal strain. Unfortunately,
the military command failed to react immediately to advice about quartantines, so Barry tells
some horrifying stories about troop trains and ships jammed with soldiers that turned into charnel
houses as dead piled up everywhere.
The book explains how lethal and contagious this disease was. The worst aspect
was it seemed to kill the healthiest people - young adults seemed to die the quickest. The influenza
strained provoked such a devastating counterattack by the human immune system that stricken
people had their lungs fill with blood, pus, white blood cells - they literally drowned as their
lungs filled with fluid. Since the healthiest adults had the most vibrant immune systems, their response
was the strongest, and thus they were most likely to die. Barry describes people turning dark blue
as their bodies starved for oxygen.
Barry describes how poorly the cities reacted to the influenza bug. Philidelphia held
a long planned parade to encourage people to buy war bonds, despite the fact the medical authorities
pleaded that the parade be cancelled. But the parade was held, and within days the city was filled
with dying citizens.
The book spends several chapters describing the attempts of the science and
medical community to find a cure, or even the cause of the epidemic. These men fail, the epidemic
ends when the strains mutates into a more benign form, but even after the epidemic has past, the men
continue to investigate diseases, viruses - the research community we take for granted today
became institutionalized back then. One hero of the book is a man named Avery, who persistently spends
his entire career trying to deduce how the influenza strains can pass different genetic information
between them. Ultimately, Avery proves that a molecule called DNA was responsible for passing genetic information -
Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, but it was Avery who first showed what DNA does.
One of the most interesting chapters describes how Woodrow Wilson caught influenza
while in Europe negotiating the peace process. Barry explains how people recovering from influenze exhibit
reduced mental capacity, some people never recover their previous personalities. Prior to his infection,
Wilson had pressed George (English prime minister) and Clemenceau (French) for a just and
sustainable peace treaty. But the other Allied leaders wanted revenge on Germany and Austria for
World War I. After Wilson "recovered" from his bout of influenza, he acted like a different man, and
in the end gave up all his principled positions (except the League of Nations) - England and France
got the vengeful treaty they wanted, and 20 years later the world got World War II.
This is a long book, I had to renew it from the library several times to finish. But
the good parts are very informative, I learned a lot from reading it.