Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Great Influenza by John M Barry.

John M. Barry is an impressive individual. His ability to self-educate while writing books has led to appointments on various policy boards as an expert advisor. The publication of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, resulted in Barry’s appointment to The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East and The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The work that this review focuses upon, The Great Influenza, led to his work on the federal government’s Infectious Disease Board of Experts. Without any background in medicine, public policy or geoscience, this is quite a set of achievements.

The Great Influenza demonstrates that Barry’s gifts are not limited to learning alone, but include an ability to impart that learning in an engaging manner. It is a highly informative, exploration of the struggle to defeat a pandemic by the best minds in US medical science. The book begins by examining the progress in medical science up until the point of the pandemic’s beginnings, then introduces “the warriors” who fought it.  Barry’s insightful portraits of the scientists involved serve to acquaint the reader with brilliant and high-achieving individuals in whose quest one becomes involved. This is followed by a useful explanation of influenza’s pathophysiology. Subsequent chapters comprise an interspersion of scientific investigation and experiences of communities during the epidemic’s progress.

Unfortunately, there is an overriding ethnocentrism to the book. Despite the worldwide effects of the 1918 pandemic, Barry only sparsely covers research efforts in Europe. While it is undoubtedly true that many in European medical science were consumed by the war effort, there were still independent researchers exploring a cure for influenza. Also, Barry’s portraits of communities devastated by and responding to the epidemic are almost entirely US examples. The rest of the world suffered as well. This ethnocentrism even taints the author’s representation of theory. Barry states “epidemiological evidence suggests that a new influenza virus originated in Haskell County Kansas” (Barry, p. 92), without mentioning that this is only one of many possible scenarios. In fact, the most recent theories indicate that the disease originated in China (Vergano, p. 1). If the book were entitled Influenza in the United States, it could be considered comprehensive. But that is not the case.

In service to engaging his reader, the author sometimes goes over the top to elicit emotion. “An infection is an act of violence; it is an invasion, a rape” (Barry, p. 107). This is not responsible history or science reporting. But this emotionalism is occasional. Barry generally captures the drama without losing the thread of history. He writes absorbingly and presents the information capably. Writing ability cannot be underestimated. If a historian cannot keep the attention of their reader, the information she wishes to convey will be lost to all but the most intrepid student.

The Great Influenza concludes with a discussion of contemporary influenza scares and epidemics. Ever the policy board expert, Barry emphasizes the importance of governments and media being honest with the public. He talks about how efforts to prevent panic, by hiding the seriousness of the 1918 occurrence, caused people to mistrust government and media when the true extent of the crisis was revealed to them. Government and media could no longer communicate with a suspicious public, hampering collective efforts to contain the spread. Through his extensive study and subsequent national positions, Barry is uniquely positioned to offer useful approaches to combat future epidemics.

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2009.


Vergano, Dan. "1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million Originated in China, Historians Say." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.