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The Great Influenza
a review of the book by John M. Barry
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry chronicles the horrors of the pandemic of 1918 and shows us that we really didn’t learn from the past but in fact repeated many of the same mistakes. Unreliable press coverage, a lack of cohesive policy from the federal government, people who refuse to wear masks, yup… that’s all happened before. Our experiences with Covid-19 aren’t new per se, except, perhaps, that now there is the internet and more pervasive critique of the government and medical institutions. Pandemics were handled poorly in the past, and, if Covid-19 is any indication, they will be handled poorly in the future.
This book was full of interesting facts but the internal narrative and focus were boring. The Great Influenza focuses on scientists experiences and how they persevered under pressure to find a cure; but, I hate to say it, the scientists fail hard-core. This might be a spoiler, scientists weren’t able to create a vaccine in time to help with the most virulent cycles of the flu. They pretty much fumble around, go down unrelated tangents, find RNA (granted that’s pretty important), and eventually, years later, figure out that influenza is caused by a virus. This is a revelation Barry tries to make suspenseful, but is actually revealed in the first couple of chapters of the book. Plus, all of his modern day readers already know this.
This book focuses on a couple scientists but also gives a general overview of most of the scientific contributions of the time. The main character of the first half of the book is William H. Welch, who is actually irrelevant, even though Barry tries to make him seem important. When Welch is introduced, Barry literally says that Welch’s life is not that interesting, and then proceeds to talk about him for the next 4/19 hrs of the audiobook. Later, it’s revealed that Welch actually didn’t do anything to help find a vaccine for the Spanish Flu, he was just influential in improving medical schools and legitimizing the field before 1918. That’s important and all, but only seems vaguely related to the topic, which I thought was supposed to be INFLUENZA, not medical schools.
The most interesting parts of the book were about societies’ reactions to the flu, as well as how it spread throughout different populations and cultures. It was pretty crazy to learn that science really didn’t contribute much at all to eradicating 1918 influenza. The virus just mutated enough to no longer be as contagious and life threatening. So in the end, everyone just had to wait it out.
This is a horrible moral for a story, but life isn’t a morality play. And so, Barry tries to bring the narrative back to science because he believes in the importance of medicine. And Barry does this by talking about the scientist Oswald Avery, who was ostracized for studying influenza for too many years while spending a lot of money and not finding any meaningful results. Yet Avery persisted, and was finally rewarded with a significant scientific result before passing away. Barry argues that Avery didn’t get the credit he deserves for his contributions to science before his death under scientifically embarrassing circumstances (he’s rumored to have given himself yellow fever via a cut while smoking a cigarette).
Why does Avery deserve an award? Barry does not do a great job arguing Avery’s merits. Avery is an objectively mediocre person. He left his wife to study yellow fever and influenza because he was obsessed with his research. Barry puts this type of hyper-focused scientific selfishness on a pedestal, when really there are tons of scientists in similar circumstances who don’t make any meaningful contributions. Avery was lucky (and also unlucky because of the yellow fever mishap). Like Welch, Avery wasn’t that interesting but he was another 4/19 hrs of the audiobook.
I think you will learn things (I learned a lot) if you read this book. It was fascinating to compare our experiences with Covid-19 to the 1918 pandemic. Just be warned, the book is interesting but the focus on scientists’ perspectives makes the narrative more narrow and dry than would have been ideal.
The Don’t Call Me Ishmael Official Book Rating, Sponsored by The Collective of Whale Clinicians (The CWC):
3/5 Whales. Readable.