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The Great Influenza

The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

By John M. Barry
18-minute read
Audio available
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

The Great Influenza (2004) is the authoritative history of the 1918 influenza pandemic, estimated to have killed 5 percent of the world’s total human population. Author John M. Barry examines the scientific, social, and political context of the pandemic, questioning the extent to which human error and willful ignorance worsened the terrible consequences of the disease. Coming right on the heels of World War I, the pandemic changed the course of history in ways too numerous, and impactful, to fully reckon with – until now.   

  • Biology students
  • Anyone interested in how a disease outbreak can impact geopolitics
  • People curious about the social history of the twentieth century
  • Anyone interested in biology and the human body

John M. Barry is a New York Times bestselling author whose books have won dozens of awards. In his writing, he examines the history of public policy and science, and how the two have frequently come together to wreak havoc. Though not a scientist, he has advised both the Bush and Obama administrations on flu preparedness and has delivered a keynote address at the National Academies of Sciences on pandemic influenza.

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The Great Influenza

The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

By John M. Barry
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
Synopsis

The Great Influenza (2004) is the authoritative history of the 1918 influenza pandemic, estimated to have killed 5 percent of the world’s total human population. Author John M. Barry examines the scientific, social, and political context of the pandemic, questioning the extent to which human error and willful ignorance worsened the terrible consequences of the disease. Coming right on the heels of World War I, the pandemic changed the course of history in ways too numerous, and impactful, to fully reckon with – until now.   

Key idea 1 of 11

By the onset of World War I, American medical science had improved tremendously and was approaching world class status. 

“First, do no harm.” You might recognize those words from the Hippocratic oath – the oath doctors take before they can start practicing. It’s named after the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived in the fourth century BCE. 

Hippocrates had ideas about medical therapy too. He prescribed bloodletting and leeching as therapies for many ailments because they could restore harmony to a sick body’s unbalanced humors. Until the nineteenth century, doctors still used these methods to treat various maladies. Even in 1800, over two millennia after Hippocrates, medicine remained what one historian called “the withered arm of science.” 

By contrast, nineteenth century Europe was a revolutionary place for medicine. A wave of increasingly revolutionary discoveries culminated in 1883, when German physician Robert Koch proved that germs can cause disease. It was the first modern breakthrough in the study of disease.

Medicine in the US, however, lagged far behind. That was soon to change.  

The key message here is: By the onset of World War I, American medical science had improved tremendously and was approaching world class status. 

In 1873, business tycoon and philanthropist Johns Hopkins died, leaving $3.5 million to found a university and hospital in Baltimore. His trustees aimed to make the institution a beacon of American medicine.

There wasn’t much competition. American medical schools at the time paid their faculty and earned profits from student fees, incentivizing them to admit large classes of students irrespective of academic talent. Even the best schools operated this way: in 1870, you could get an MD from Harvard having failed four out of nine classes.

Johns Hopkins University changed all that. By recruiting graduates from the finest German medical universities, it gained instant credibility. One of these professors was William Welch, a charismatic young instructor who would head up Hopkins medical research arm. Welch presided over a close-knit group of brilliant, curious researchers.

Hopkins’s new approach to medicine attracted attention. Looking after his own legacy, business magnate John D. Rockefeller founded the Rockefeller Institute in 1901. As with Johns Hopkins, money bought excellence; Rockefeller’s institute quickly became influential. 

Together, the Hopkins and Rockefeller institutes raised the bar for American medical schools. In fact, by the outbreak of World War I, American doctors were becoming as good – if not better – than their European counterparts.

The feather in Welch’s cap would be a school for public health aimed at disease prevention, which he inaugurated at Hopkins on October 1, 1918. Welch was sick that day with a cough and a violent headache. He’d recently traveled to Boston to investigate a new epidemic engulfing the Northeast. He suspected it was a new strain of influenza.

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