At the height of WWI, history's most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon.
Although we have several other superb histories of the 1918 influenza pandemic, John M. Barry presents a fascinating look at how the epidemic spread and how physicians and researchers rallied to mobilize against a global health crisis. Barry also supplies useful profiles of the American microbe hunters who struggled to stem the tide -- and shows in turn how their work was shaped by the vast transformations in American medicine that began around 1900, most especially the increasing ability not only to treat dreaded diseases but to halt or prevent them entirely. By synthesizing the work of several accomplished historians of medicine, Barry produces a sharp account of the epidemic's sudden onset, as well as the no less dramatic (and sometimes panicked) responses that it inspired. Barry also underlines the dismaying speed with which many survivors forgot the great influenza outbreak almost as soon as it appeared to end. Howard Markel