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SWC Online Voices

September 2009

FLU: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It

Book Review
by Dorothy Black

On entering my local library, and without a possible subject in mind, I immediately noticed a display shelf of books all about one subject — flu. Given the recent concerns about that sometimes dangerous illness, and my curiosity about it, I searched no further for a new book to read and report on and chose one from the display — Flu.

We have all heard about it recently if not before, and many of us have experienced some version of flu. This book attempts to describe the phenomena, starting with the history of flu and giving us a ringside seat in the struggles to record, understand, and identify flu through the ages. The worst event seems to have been the pandemic of 1918 but there were others before and others since, all threatening human beings to one degree or another. The 1918 version is thought to have killed forty million people and it travelled even to isolated areas, sometimes wiping out whole villages. The author writes that it killed “more American soldiers in a single year than died in battle in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.“ And in this modern age, scientists and researchers tell us, we could experience such devastation again. They are attempting to study whatever flu information is available in the hope of finding a remedy or preventative. As Flu reveals, there is nothing easy or certain where flu is the focus.

Flu delves into many of the mysteries surrounding this disease. Where did it originate? When? What people did it particularly target and why? How did it change from time to time? Is it possible to obtain a vaccine, and if so, should it be used or not? There are various arguments for and against that the lay person likely has not thought of, such as litigation. Facts, suppositions and theories abound, some acted upon. Various researchers follow their ideas. This can have unexpected results, such as double investigations or misunderstandings. It was critical to try to identify the 1918 virus and this involved even taking lung samples from long-dead victims in the Arctic who had hopefully been preserved by permafrost. Some took extreme precautions when in possible contact with the virus, some didn’t.

The author of Flu, Gina Kolata, is a science reporter for The New York Times and author of several books. She is evidently a sensitive and curious writer.

This book reads like a gripping murder mystery, a whodunit, a historical biography. As well as the intriguing facts and descriptions concerning influenza, it reveals interesting details, events and relationships that further hold one’s interest. There is even a smidgeon of romance at one point! I found Flu an intriguing and timely book. I think you will, too.

FLU: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It
by Gina Kolata

Farrar, Straus and Giraux
19 Union Square West, New York 10003 330 pages 1999
ISBN 0-374-15706-5

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*Any opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and not necessarily those of the SayWhatClub*