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The Great Influenza of 1918

March 11, 2010 by Reader's Connection

Influenza 1918
The isn´t an anniversary that anyone wants to celebrate, but on March 11, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell reported to the camp hospital at Fort Riley in northeastern Kansas.

He had a fever, sore throat, headache. Just the flu. Nothing to worry about. A minute later, however, another sick soldier showed up. Then another. By noon, the baffled hospital staff had 107 cases on their hands. By week’s end: 522. In the next month, they saw well over a thousand. — Lynette Iezzoni, in the first chapter of her Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic in American History, the companion volume to The American Experience’s television treatment of the epidemic. Choice’s reviewer of the book doubted that such companion volumes were worthwhile publications, but admitted It is very rare that a work of medical history can be described as a “page turner,” a term more associated with the fiction of Anne Rice or John Grisham, but Iezzoni has pulled off that feat.

Private Gitchell and his mates are sometimes cited as the first victims of the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Iezzoni subscribes to the theory that the soldiers were the victims of a dust storm that had kicked up while they were burning tons of manure. John M. Barry, though, believes that the flu was brought to Fort Riley from Haskell County in the southwestern part of the state, where  it had already claimed some victims; and some commentators don’t think it started in Kansas or the United States at all. Wherever it began, it became a worldwide epidemic that cost–and these figures vary from book to book–from 40 to 100 million lives.  

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in Human History by John M. Barry

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in Human History
 In 1918, a plague swept across the world virtually without warning, killing healthy young adults as well as vulnerable infants and the elderly. Hospitals and morgues were quickly overwhelmed; in Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in one week alone and bodies piled up on the streets to be carted off to mass graves. But this was not the dreaded Black Death-it was “only influenza.” In this sweeping history, Barry (Rising Tide) explores how the deadly confluence of biology (a swiftly mutating flu virus that can pass between animals and humans) and politics (President Wilson’s all-out war effort in WWI) created conditions in which the virus thrived, killing more than 50 million worldwide and perhaps as many as 100 million in just a year. Overcrowded military camps and wide-ranging troop deployments allowed the highly contagious flu to spread quickly; transport ships became “floating caskets.” Yet the U.S. government refused to shift priorities away from the war and, in effect, ignored the crisis . . . Instead, official lies and misinformation, Barry argues, created a climate of “fear… [that] threatened to break the society apart.” Barry captures the sense of panic and despair that overwhelmed stricken communities and hits hard at those who failed to use their power to protect the public good. He also describes the work of the dedicated researchers who rushed to find the cause of the disease and create vaccines. — Publishers Weekly 


Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I by Carol R. Byerly 

Fever of WarIn this lucid, well-focused book, Byerly examines the 1918 influenza pandemic as experienced by the American Expeditionary Force. She argues that the Great War created the epidemic through the terrible conditions forced upon soldiers and, at the same time, that the epidemic impacted the war through its extraordinarily high mortality and morbidity rates. In addition, she neatly tucks issues of gender and race into her discussion of the military medical community. She asserts persuasively that those responsible for writing the story of medicine during the Great War (such as Secretary of War Newton Baker) did not merely “forget” the pandemic, they dismissed it in their desire to portray a medical corps able to adequately care for the US’s young soldiers . . . Byerly’s prose is exceptionally clear and elegant. — Choice



Wickett’s Remedy by Myla Goldberg

Wickett's Remedy

 In her much anticipated follow-up to the best-selling Bee Season, Goldberg captures the ambitions and tragedies of the early twentieth century through the character of Lydia Kilkenny, an immensely appealing Irish shopgirl determined to escape her South Boston neighborhood. She attains her goal upon marrying sweet Henry Wickett, an aspiring doctor, but he shocks her with his decision to drop out of school to develop a patent medicine. Then Lydia’s family is decimated by the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, and she volunteers to work as a nurse’s aide in an experimental study with human subjects. Goldberg expertly interweaves her narrative with newspaper articles, a company newsletter, and personal letters, all of which richly capture the historical period, including its intractable class divisions and its strange mix of idealism and hucksterism. Her most intriguing device, however, is a Greek chorus (set in the page margins) of the voices of the dead, which testily comment on the narrative, ingeniously pointing out the subjectivity of memory. With its warm, involving story line and intrinsically interesting subject matter, this is sure to be popular . . . Booklist


This Time of Dying

This Time of Dying by Reina James

 First-time novelist James depicts 1918 England amid a Spanish flu epidemic that will claim millions worldwide. Competing for casualties is a war one doctor speculates is causing the flu’s spread. Henry Speake is an undertaker who becomes overwhelmed with business as the disease progresses. Mrs. Allen Thompson is a widowed schoolteacher who must deal with a stubborn sister, a dying woman hidden in her house, and rumors of illicit behavior as she befriends Henry. When Henry finds a letter from the aforementioned doctor, struck dead from the flu, he confides to Mrs. Thompson the fears that come with his newfound knowledge. James uses rich detail and excerpts from Speake’s diary to create a wonderfully engrossing read. — Library Journal


A booklist of this sort will have users wondering about our most recent run of flu. Let’s all  be thankful that the 2009 H1N1 probably won’t inspire the same sorts of books as the epic influenza of 1918.  At the moment I think the library has only one book on the subject.    


Swine Flu, H1N1: The Facts



Swine Flu, H1N1: The Facts by Terence Stephenson


Suitable for parents and those who are concerned about swine flu, this book presents the key facts about swine flu, and explains what parents need to know about the virus. — Publisher’s note






The website of the Indiana State Department of Health still has pages devoted to H1N1 in Indiana. There are frequently asked questions (Can people catch the flu from eating pork? No.) and Indiana statistics (There were no confirmed influenza-related deaths reported during Week 9, 2010. There have been a total of 42 influenza-related deaths since June 1, 2009, of which 39 had confirmed 2009 H1N1).

This website and the Marion County Department of Health site–which also has H1N1 information–are included on the library’s Health, Mind & Body info guide.

The federal government’s site can be accessed from MEDLINEplus, which also appears on our Health info guide.


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