The Great Influenza

  • by John M. Barry
  • Narrated by Scott Brick
  • 19 hrs and 25 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

No disease the world has ever known even remotely resembles the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Presumed to have begun when sick farm animals infected soldiers in Kansas, spreading and mutating into a lethal strain as troops carried it to Europe, it exploded across the world with unequaled ferocity and speed. It killed more people in 20 weeks than AIDS has killed in 20 years; it killed more people in a year than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century. Victims bled from the ears and nose, turned blue from lack of oxygen, suffered aches that felt like bones being broken, and died. In the United States, where bodies were stacked without coffins on trucks, nearly seven times as many people died of influenza as in the First World War.
In his powerful new book, award-winning historian John M. Barry unfolds a tale that is magisterial in its breadth and in the depth of its research, and spellbinding as he weaves multiple narrative strands together. In this first great collision between science and epidemic disease, even as society approached collapse, a handful of heroic researchers stepped forward, risking their lives to confront this strange disease. Titans like William Welch at the newly formed Johns Hopkins Medical School and colleagues at Rockefeller University and others from around the country revolutionized American science and public health, and their work in this crisis led to crucial discoveries that we are still using and learning from today.
Now with a new afterword.


What the Critics Say

"Gripping....Easily our fullest, richest, most panoramic history of the subject." (The New York Times Book Review)
"An enthralling symphony of a book, whose every page compels." (Booklist)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Gripping and Gory

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, including the contextual detail that many others disliked, but I wouldn't recommend listening to it near mealtime, as the author dwells repetitively and graphically on the sensory (shall we say)"challenges" of those who beheld the victims in their various stages of death and dying. There were points where I wondered if I'd inadvertantly reset the narrative to a chapter I'd already listened to, so redundent was the story. However, the repetition accurately mirrored the relentlessness of the disease.

From the contextual elements of this book, I finally learned why the hospital where I work insists that we come to work unless we're on our deathbeds. The nursing profession grew out of the military and its need to maintain healthy soldiers. Healthcare professionals were - and are - soldiers in the war against disease, and many died while caring for influenza patients. Also, I was told that the WWI generation had an unusually large number of "spinsters" who never married, because so many young men died in "the Great War." But, the flu disproportionately struck young men who happened to be soldiers lodged in crowded barracks that helped spread the disease. And, now I know why the Plague was called "the Black Death" (cyanosis turned the victims' bodies dark blue-black).

Although the narrator's style is indeed grating at times, the book is fascinating and provides not just a history of the disease, but of the historical and political circumstances that perhaps allowed the disease to become so widespread before it was acknowleged and attempts were begun to control it. If I were reading the hard copy, I'd be up all night until I finished.
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- Nancy

History of Medicine in America explored

Any additional comments?

What a fascinating look at the history of medicine and medical practice in America. The tale of the spread of disease and the blow by blow experience was harrowing. Well worth a listen.

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- Sara

Book Details

  • Release Date: 03-08-2006
  • Publisher: Penguin Audio