Thursday, October 19, 2006

[Book Review] THE GREAT INFLUENZA by John Barry


Heather Lawson reviews THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry (Viking, 2004):

This book is an amazing example of historical research with its study of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which began during World War I and quickly killed the young and strong. Barry describes many factors that helped spiral a death rate that some estimate as high as 100 million worldwide: the desire to preserve morale during the war; failure to close public buildings and stop drives such as the Liberty Loan campaign; the continual lies or absence of any information provided by the media and the government; corrupt local and state governments; and inexperienced political appointees chosen for the Board of Health and other government agencies.

This all-encompassing book begins with the history of medicine and important medical breakthroughs in the United States. Barry clearly draws the personalities and quirks of the researchers who spent their lives attempting to understand and cure this strain of influenza. Countless personal stories are included, both horrific and heroic: the doctor near the Mexican border who worked nonstop to help the thousands that came to his isolated ranch for help; and the man who stepped on a trolley only to see almost all passengers, the conductor and the driver die as he traveled to his home.

The Great Influenza is one of those books with fascinating detail after detail which make it impossible to put down. Reviewers have described the many levels of appeal, as the book reads at times like a morality tale, a biography, a detective story, and a science fiction novel.

If you like this book, you might also like Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History for their breadth of coverage regarding an historical event and for more stories of massive devastation with interesting central characters.

Heather Lawson, Adult Services


I look forward to reading John Barry's latest book. I could not put down the "Rising Tide...." book by Barry several years ago. He is an excellent researcher and gifted writer. I cannot wait to read his other titles. MKM
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