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Feeling lousy

"The Great Influenza," written by John Barry and published in 2005, was a more enlightening and less entertaining book than I imagined. The subject is the killer flu epidemic that ravaged the world in 1918-'19, piling up bodies of the dead in cities around the United States (where the epidemic probably started), Europe, Asia and Africa — anywhere from 20 to 100 million victims in all, plus hundreds of millions more who were prostrated by the sickness but recovered. It's an incredible story of a flu that was so deadly, in some cases, that a person would feel perfectly healthy one day and be dead the next; that boats embarking with a crew of healthy sailors would, days later, sail into harbor like ghost ships, loaded with the dead; that killed young, healthy people in greater numbers than the very young or old; that struck down caregivers, including doctors and nurses, with such speed and ferocity that no one could be found to care for its victims as their lungs filled, as blood streamed from their eyes and noses and ears, as their eardrums ruptured and their heads pounded with such pain they would scream when touched.

It's a gripping, horrible story, but Barry chooses not to dwell on the intense horror but on the scientific effort to stop the outbreak. This effort failed — the pandemic burned itself out, without medical intervention — but it led, over time, to various breakthroughs, including the discovery of DNA. There's a lot to learn from the scientific/medical history, and Barry tells it in detail. I didn't know, for example, that most doctors at the turn of the century in the U.S. were completely unqualified, that medical students paid their professors directly, through fees, and that medical schools provided little to no practical training of students but only had them read some books. Pharmacists were far better trained.

But all the details about how medical training improved around the time of the pandemic and about the lives and motivations of the scientists trying to find a cure for the deadly flu were dull, compared with the details about the pandemic itself. Barry could have written a book about half the length of this one (somewhere around 500 pages), leaving out the minutiae on laboratory techniques and concentrating on the way families had to shove the bodies of their loved ones into corners, because no one would pick them up, and created a much more gripping and readable story.

I did learn a lot, but sometimes what you're looking for is a thrilling read. That's what I was looking for here but, unfortunately, I found something educational instead.

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Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at will@poststar.com and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at

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