Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic In American History, by Lynette Iezzoni
Reading about the horrific and massively deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 is a bit too topical of reading given the contemporary climate, but I have always liked to read frighteningly relevant books as a way of understanding the times in which one lives and in the approaches that are taken to the fears of massively deadly pandemics. It should be noted that the current Coronavirus pandemic is nowhere nearly as deadly as the 1918 flu that was inaccurately called the Spanish flu and which apparently started in Kansas in the fluke connection between a bird flu and a pig flu that combined and which mutated into a particularly deadly form of H1N1, but the reaction of political leaders and the medical community and the media to the Coronavirus has much in common with the response in 1918. This book shows some very eerie parallels, including the potential seasonal aspects of the disease, which can be expected to fade during the summer with a possible recurrence during the fall and winter, as well as the way that quinine was thought of as a remedy for the flu, and the way that masks were ubiquitous and business temporarily shut down as fear and panic and death spread across the world.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and it focuses on the experience of the flu of 1918 as it relates to the United States, with a bit about its worldwide spread. After a foreword and preface the book begins with some speculation and then some discussion of the flu’s beginnings in Kansas and how the transportation of doughboys to the Western front of World War I in crowded troopships greatly facilitated the spread of the disease to a Europe that was already in dire straits because of a lack of food. The author discusses the initial spread of the disease, the way it got a false name because of the difference in propaganda between an open country like Spain that was neutral and unable to muzzle the press like the fighting nations of World War I did. After that the author discusses the spread of a more virulent form of the disease back from Europe where it spread to the United States and caused all kinds of death, panic, and horror before the disease simply vanished, to leave public health efforts focused on bird flu and swine flu ever since then.
It is striking just how easily many people were able to forget the pandemic of 1918. For some people, like writer Katherine Anne Porter, the disease long troubled her and inspired her to create a fascinating work in Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Most people sought to do their best to move on and not think about the time too much. Perhaps that will be the response we will have in the aftermath of this disease when it is over. Those institutions that attempted to propagandize for their own benefit may suffer lasting harm to their reputations and honor–for such they deserve–and we will wonder why it is that despite a century of scientific advances that our response to diseases has not changed in any meaningful way over the past century. We still have very few tools as far as public health is concerned–some standby remedies that offer some hope, face masks, attempts at quarantining, efforts at building massive temporary hospitals, and the like. It is a great shame that we are still no better off when it comes to understanding the dangers of our world and how it is that we can stay relatively safe and to preserve health in a sensible fashion, so reading this book is a bit of a grim experience really in our present times.