The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic In History

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic In History

This is a book that took John M Barry seven years to write. The research and bibliography are impressive to say the least; especially his ability to explain the achievements of each individual who had involved themselves in battling against all forms of disease.

More importantly, John M Barry explained that virus cannot be understood merely in the pathway of their dissemination. It must be understood in the form of “stereochemistry” ie how the virus is built or shaped to penetrate others.

Prior to this maiden effort, he has also written on “Church, State and the Birth of Liberty”. Indeed, he has also produced a consumate book on “The Ambition and Power: The True Story of Washington D.C.” In “The Great Influenza 1918,” to John M Barry’s credit he tried his level best to understand influenza in it’s own context (pg 101-106).

At any rate, the beauty of the book, all laid out in ten, intense, chapters, often packed with historical tidbits, not of the 1918 Great Influenza alone, but the utter medic shortcomings of the United States, showcased a country that has often come up short on serious spread of medical diseases including HIV.

Chapter 8, is particularly interesting, John M Barry, quoting John Hunger, the great physiologist of the 18th century, that “life is the ability to resist putrefaction, resist infection.” (Pg 107-115).

Not surprisingly, many countries failed to prepare for pandemic including the United States. Thus, almost 90 per cent of the book showcased depravity and slowness by which the country had not been able to prepare for the pandemic head-on. If anything, the disease often “left the legacy in the laboratory.” (Pg 398).

In other words, much as some authorities may create various institutions to handle the pandemic, it takes a second or third wave before the decision makers would do anything serious, such as Senator Joe Ransdell creating the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 1928, ten years after the Great Influenza. Even then when the NIH was formed, Senator Ransdell had passed on. Rather it was the milder return of the type A influenza epidemic in 1928 that reminded the Congress of the events earlier (pg 308).

Indeed, if one goes even a century further back, even the medical schools in Yale and Harvard University verged on a scam.

In the case of the latter, one could “fail four courses out of nine medical courses yet be allowed to graduate as a medical graduate,” according to John M Barry.

Over at Yale, while the Stanfield Medical School was within the campus was Yale University in New Haven, it wasn’t necessarily part of Yale University. Theology and humanities seem to dominate the courses in Yale not epidemiology; though admittedly Yale has pivoted completely from this institutional neglect a century ago to one of the leading centers of excellence in the United States today.

What is interesting is that even at the start of the Great Influenza in 1918, most of the universities were quite oblivious to the lethality of the threat of the influenza virus that many doctors did not even have the experience of looking at a bacteria through a micro scope; unlike the medical scientists in the leading institutes in Paris or Berlin or Leipzig.

Yet, the attempt to change all that was started by Henry Welch in 1876, when he inspired John’s Hopkins University to catch up with their European counterparts. The latter was at the fore front of the field of bacteriological studies, even their fatalities began to mouth.

Welch’s spirit of derring-do, and enterprise worked. This led the likes of corporate titans like John T Rockefeller to create the Rockefeller Institute of Research, later known as the Rockefeller University.

To this day, both Johns Hopkins University and Rockefeller University, are still two of the prime institutions on the investigation of pandemic, at least in the United States.

They were the ones who first set the gold standards in the United States in the field of bacteriological research (pg 79); admittedly their dominance has since been regularly challenged by other top universities over the course of the century.

But, to date, Rockefeller University constantly ranked well ahead of Harvard University or even the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

As things are, however, something never seemed to have changed at all. The United States, divided into fifty states, had failed to understand the peril of Coronavirus completely, whether it was germinating in its midst last year, or, southern China, perhaps Europe.

This is unfortunate, as the Great Influenza too underwent various mutations before it became virulent in 1918.
In fact, decades before any pandemic can become lethal, the microbes was laying in wait to compromise the immunity of human beings and animals alike.

Politics, as always, also played a huge part in the spread of the pandemic, whether in the form of China suppressing the initial outbreak of the current SARS Cov II in late 2019, or, in deflecting the blame to other countries. Indeed, potentially, other countries confused influenza with Coronavirus.

In United States, when the emotions surrounding the unfortunate death of George Floyd boiled over in late May 2020, due to a clear case of police brutality, millions of Americans, placed social justice, ahead of public health, to demonstrate against the authorities. The vector of transmissions has sine increased by manifolds. Not necessarily due to the demonstrations alone but due to the pressure to reopen the economy.

As things are, even the best of medical sciences and facilities in United States are now at risk. Texas, Arizona, and California, which had called for an earlier reopening of the economy, are now facing the possibility of being unable to cope with the surge in hundreds of thousands of new cases.

Be it 1918, or, 2020, the United States’ system of public health does not seem to have enough beds or ventilators to handle the second wave of SARS Cov II.

In this sense, John M Barry had over estimated the medical advances of the United States a century after the Great Influenza of 1918, or, at least the scale with which a pandemic could return.

Thus, while John M Barry has done a fantastic job of explaining how the influenza had once spreaded, invariably, through a virus confirmed by Richard Sharpe only in 1928, events have since shown that America has faced five pandemics with various levels of intensity.

In each case, America had not taken it sufficiently seriously (pg 449-461). Nothing seems to have changed. The is the tragedy of pandemic. It comes back again and again.