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Showing 1-10 of 283 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 528 reviews
on August 10, 2017
This is an amazingly detailed account of the Great Flu epidemic of 1918, which killed millions around the world. Mr. Barry's research is astounding. I strongly urge anyone interested in how it happened to read his book. Besides a new strain of influenza (which happens repeatedly), much of the world was at war. This resulted in tremendous overcrowding of military bases, combined with censorship. Thus, the flu spread quickly, and the governments refused to acknowledge it. This allowed it to spread even faster. A fascinating read of the disaster, and the human response to it.
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on January 30, 2017
Interesting read concerning events that shook the world. I was surprised by lack of concern, the educational standards or lack of for MDs, the absence of effective medicines, the arrogance of most of the medical and government leaders, the failure of the military to use basic measures in treatment of the out break, and the persistence of the investigators to push to find cause and treatment for the Flu. We certainly owe them greatly.
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on July 8, 2013
John Barry spent seven years writing this fascinating account of the worst epidemic in history. Nearly every household was affected by the 1918 Influenza yet little has been told of it. Except for Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse Pale Rider fiction writers have largely omitted it. Yet is was perhaps the most influential event in the early 20th century. Barry traces the state of medical preparedness and details the disease as it spread across America into Europe during WWI and thence to all parts of the globe. This is very much a study of how this disease led to greater medical science and advancement but it is also a study of human frailties and the danger of a dictatorial government and a restrained press.
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on March 29, 2017
I bought this book as a requirement for a college history course and am very glad the teacher asked us to do so. It is insightful and informative. Alongside what I learned in the class about this time period in American history, it not only gave me more information about this horrific epidemic, it opened up a lot of understanding for me about our society. I greatly enjoyed it.
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VINE VOICEon March 23, 2004
This book is a sobering wake-up call to those of us who fret about exotic diseases like smallpox and the Ebola virus when we should be worrying instead about "only" influenza. Barry does an excellent job of describing why and how the 1918 influenza epidemic was so lethal, and he does not shy away from the disquieting conclusion that another lethal epidemic is inevitable. Moreover, it is clear that the greater mobility and density of modern life will work to our disadvantage when the next epidemic hits.
This book was extremely well-researched, exhaustive, and well-written. However, it was not without its disappointments. First and foremost, the book got off to an extremely slow start, devoting approximately the first third to a detailed (and largely unnecessary) history of medicine throughout classical times and, in particular, the 19th century in the United States. Particularly grating was the author's rather gushing portrayal of the establishment of the Johns Hopkins University, a fine institution to be sure, but not quite deserving of the idolatry displayed by Barry.
More generally, I was disappointed that so much of the book was devoted to institutional reactions to the epidemic, and less time and space was devoted to the human aspects of the story. The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were when Barry presented people's individual experiences with the epidemic, as revealed in letters, books, and interviews. These anecdotes conveyed much more vividly what it must have been like to live through the fear and panic wreaked by the epidemic. Alas, this kind of detail was in the minority in this very long book, which tended to stress instead the system-level reactions to the epidemic, for example, the (irritatingly apathetic) response of the military.
Do these criticisms mean that the book is bad? No, not at all; it just means that it is a more scholarly work, intended to place the epidemic within a larger historical context, rather than provide an oral history of what it was like to live through the epidemic. Thus it is probably unfair of me to criticize it for not being something it did not intend to be; I'm just saying that readers who want primarily the more sensationalized, personalized story of the epidemic may very well be bored and frustrated by this book.
I also wish the author had devoted more time than the brief chapter he included on discussing what lessons we can learn from the 1918 epidemic in helping us to cope with the (inevitable) next influenza epidemic. To me, the most interesting and provocative finding of the book was the author's description of how a very few communities were able to escape the epidemic virtually unscathed, and this was through a rapid response to the encroaching epidemic accompanied by a drastic and total closing of city borders. Quite simply, the areas that did not lose any lives to the epidemics were the towns that did not allow anybody to come in. This policy was effective where no other measures (wearing masks, shutting down public meetings, making spitting a crime) were, but the legal and logistical implications of such isolationism are staggering, and I wish Barry had explored them in depth. I wish this because--even though it is only influenza--we will probably in our lifetimes be confronted with such a crisis. Barry's book does an excellent job of explaining why we should be terrified at this prospect, but it falls short in telling us what we can do to minimize it.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 11, 2004
The virus: it is always a source of amazement that an entity so small and so simple could wreck such havoc to human populations. This book details the history of the deadliest viral outbreak in recorded human history. Contributing to the deaths of probably as many as 100, 000, 000 people worldwide, and just over the span of a couple of years, this story of the 1918 influenza virus is a chilling one, but also a story of human and scientific triumph. Reading the pages of this book instills fear as well as inspiration, and it serves as a good apology for current efforts to understand and engineer viruses, in order to soften or even eliminate their threat to all life forms on this planet.

This book does not merely discuss the calamity caused by the influenza virus. It also gives an overview of the state of medical science as it was before the virus struck. For anyone (such as this reviewer) not familiar with the history of academic institutions in the United States, especially medical institutions, the author offers a view of it that is actually quite surprising when judged from contemporary standards. The United States currently has the best medical institutions in the world, but as the author shows, this was not the case one hundred years ago. Indeed, the picture of the U.S. university towards the end of the nineteenth is one that was oriented to liberal arts and religious/theological studies. Medicine and science in general were not very well represented in the university, but a perusal of the universities of Europe motivated some to replicate their success in America, with Johns Hopkins being the ultimate example. Even Harvard University, the author points out, would grant a medical degree to anyone who could pass five out of nine courses. He quotes an American student, who, like most others of the time had to go to Europe to get a quality education in medicine, described the state of medical education in the United States as "simply horrible."

The contributions and life of William Henry Welch, one of the major players of medical science at the time, founder of the Johns Hopkins medical school, and one of the first proponents in the United States of the germ theory of disease, are discussed in great detail in the book. One can only view his life with admiration, not only for instigating the correct path for medical research in the United States, but also for his dedication to his goal, which early on, required him to live a somewhat Spartan existence. The lives and contributions of other members in the great cadre of medical science of the time, such as Simon Flexner, Oswald T. Avery, William Park, Anna Wessel Williams, Rufus Cole, Paul A. Lewis, and Richard Shope, are given ample treatment in the book, stirring the reader to a quiet envy of their dedication and accomplishments. Their impact to medical science and molecular biology is still being felt, both in terms of their strategies in tackling scientific problems and the restlessness they exhibited in finding the answer.

With the tools of molecular biology and powerful computing machines, knowledge of viruses has swelled dramatically from what it was in 1918. Interest in the 1918 influenza virus has not subsided, and in fact just in the past few weeks there have been efforts by some researchers to study the virus by taking fragments from the (exhumed) victims of the pandemic. Five of the eight genes of the virus have been sequenced, and some researchers have added some of these genes to modern flu viruses, in order to recreate the 1918 virus. Naturally issues of containment have arisen, and they should be, but a study of the 1918 virus is necessary in order to find ways to combat possibly even more virulent viruses. The genetic engineering of viruses, both dangerous and benign is important work that should be done by those individuals who have proven themselves responsible in carrying it out. This book gives ample evidence that an understanding of viruses is of extreme importance to the future of humankind.
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on June 29, 2007
John Barry has written a very thorough and compelling book about the 1918-19 flu pandemic. I have to say that my expectations for this book were quite different from the approach Barry took. This did not diminish my enjoyment of the story, however, it took me 50 or so pages to reset myself and why I was interested in this book in the first place -- to learn more about what is often a small footnote in history that coincided with WWI.

The story is not an outbreak thriller as some others suggest. It is first and foremost a history about the transformation of medicine and the medical profession in the United States. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the profession of medicine in the United States was woefully behind Europe -- Barry notes with some hyperbole (although he is not that far off) that the profession had not advanced much from the days of Hippocrates.

Secondarily, Barry focuses on the inadequacy of public health in the US during this time and how that likely contributed to a greater death toll. Against this backdrop, we are introduced to some of the early American medical giants and their race to find a cure to stop the dying.

About 300 pages through, I thought the book began to drag a bit. About every other chapter kept me engaged and half of the rest of the chapters. Overall, Barry deserves credit for a well-written, multi-dimensional view of this epidemic -- certainly valuable reading as we prepare for the inevitable epidemic we'll face globally, either from influenza or another yet to be identified virus.
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on September 11, 2015
My grandfather died in 1918 and I wanted to know why. Now I do. This book shows the outrageous control by the Woodrow Wilson administration over the news media, his almost dictatorship over promoting WWI and the terrifying disregard for people's rights in promoting the war and not paying one wit of attention to the virus that was killing 675,000 Americans. An eye opener. Anyone who thinks the government is worse today than in yesterday year needs to read this book. It is frightening.
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on September 18, 2017
So this book was heading towards 4, perhaps 5 stars until the poorly written conclusion. The author marches the reader through excruciating detail on the research methods and theories involved in trying to figure out what pathogen caused this terrible pandemic. And then at the end when the answers are finally reached, he doesn't give one ounce of detail of how this was solved. I wanted to throw the book through the window at the point. That emotional response negated so much of the good detailed work that was written up to this point.
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on July 25, 2008
Although I purchased this book a couple of years ago, I hadn't gotten to it until just now. I moved it to the top of my To Read list after finishing The Last Town on Earth, which is a fictionalized account of the 1918 flu. I wasn't expecting the detailed history of how our medical profession modernized, and the history of the origins of Johns Hopkins, although I was pleasantly surprised to find it here. I also found the general policies instituted by the Wilson administration, utterly suppressing free speech and any discord about the war very interesting. The only problem I had with the book was excessive repetiveness -- sometimes I wondered if I were somehow re-reading a page I had read before, as descriptions or quotations were restated verbatim in several parts of the book. There were also excessive descriptions of similar events in different towns that didn't truly add to the book's point -- the impact and experience of the 1918 flu. Certain parts were reminiscent of The Coming Plague (another book which I highly recommend), and if you enjoyed that book, you will enjoy this one as well. I am very glad to have the knowledge gained by reading this book, and the only reason I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 was the repetiveness of many of its points -- the book could have easily been 100 pages shorter with some good editing.
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