The Great Influenza

The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History
Narrated by: Scott Brick
Length: 19 hrs and 26 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (4,099 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In the winter of 1918, at the height of World War I, history's most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision between modern science and epidemic disease.

Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research, The Great Influenza weaves together multiple narratives, with characters ranging from William Welch, founder of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, to John D. Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson. Ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, this crisis provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon.

©2004, 2005 John M. Barry (P)2006 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

Over a year on The New York Times best seller list

"Monumental...powerfully intelligent...not just a masterful narrative...but also an authoritative and disturbing morality tale." (Chicago Tribune)

"Easily our fullest, richest, most panoramic history of the subject." (The New York Times Book Review)

"Hypnotizing, horrifying, energetic, lucid prose..." (Providence Observer)

What members say
Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Gripping and Gory

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, including the contextual detail that many others disliked, but I wouldn't recommend listening to it near mealtime, as the author dwells repetitively and graphically on the sensory (shall we say)"challenges" of those who beheld the victims in their various stages of death and dying. There were points where I wondered if I'd inadvertantly reset the narrative to a chapter I'd already listened to, so redundent was the story. However, the repetition accurately mirrored the relentlessness of the disease.

From the contextual elements of this book, I finally learned why the hospital where I work insists that we come to work unless we're on our deathbeds. The nursing profession grew out of the military and its need to maintain healthy soldiers. Healthcare professionals were - and are - soldiers in the war against disease, and many died while caring for influenza patients. Also, I was told that the WWI generation had an unusually large number of "spinsters" who never married, because so many young men died in "the Great War." But, the flu disproportionately struck young men who happened to be soldiers lodged in crowded barracks that helped spread the disease. And, now I know why the Plague was called "the Black Death" (cyanosis turned the victims' bodies dark blue-black).

Although the narrator's style is indeed grating at times, the book is fascinating and provides not just a history of the disease, but of the historical and political circumstances that perhaps allowed the disease to become so widespread before it was acknowleged and attempts were begun to control it. If I were reading the hard copy, I'd be up all night until I finished.

103 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

A fascinating medical who-dun-it

Would you listen to The Great Influenza again? Why?

I bought this book to help me do research, and have read it through twice. The first time, I read it for the story. The second time, I read it for the details that I needed to note for my project. I have enjoyed it both times.

It is a brilliant retelling of a true modern-day pandemic and the scientists who tried to corral it. If you liked THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, you will find this an exceedingly satisfying use of a credit.I love that Barry incorporates so many details of everyday life.

A great example of this is his exploration of the limited options available to women back then and how, because of the desperate need for nursing care, the flu actually opened up a new--and respected--path for women who wanted and/or needed to work. Prior to this, a women's choices were limited pretty much to domestic work, marriage, or prostitution. Barry explains how the flu pandemic changed all that.In addition to little details such as women's roles, Barry takes us on a compelling trip through the history of medicine. Here is just one sample of the type of thing you'll learn here: that up to the turn of the last century, many highly respected, so-called med schools would cheerfully award diplomas to students who had never even had a single hands-on interaction with a patient, or even a cadaver. I'm not in the medical field, but I do like history. This is one of the best in the genre.

What did you like best about this story?

I am just so impressed when a writer can turn history into something lively and compelling. That is exactly what happened here. Mr. Barry took a thousand strands of storyline and wound them together in a captivating tale that made me want to know more.

What aspect of Scott Brick’s performance would you have changed?

I am one of the few people left on the planet who does not love, love, love Scott Brick. I would have loved it had Arthur Morey narrated this book. Mr. Brick's narration, while suitable, is the only reason I gave this book four stars, instead of five.

I first heard Scott Brick years ago when he was hired to voice Nelson DeMille's John Corey series. I found him serviceable in that role, and God knows, he is everywhere. Recently, I heard him read a Harlan Coben book, SIX YEARS, which I could barely get through because of his excessive emoting.

So I have to admit, I came into this book with a little bit of an, ahem, attitude. I have to say that I think Mr. Brick did a solid job with THE GREAT INFLUENZA. There were opportunities to mess it up. He didn't. He mostly stayed in a professional, newsman-style, non-fiction mode.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Where were you when the outbreak began?

Any additional comments?

My great-grandfather died in 1918 from the flu. He was the love of my great-grandmother's life and it had a huge impact on her. Add to this the fact of The Great War/The War to End All Wars/The First World War. The world was truly changing back then on a daily basis, and the flu was just one of the many causes. This is a great visit back into a unique time in American and world history.

61 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Great book but very disturbing...

Yikes! This one may cause you to lose some sleep. As one reviewer said, it's like a horror novel - but true.

I had no idea that the epidemic actually had an impact on World War I! Also, the reason why it killed predominantly younger, healthier individuals was quite surprising.

Wrapped in the horrifying story is the interesting history of medical research in the United States. While I was a bit put off by the anti-religious slant of some of this history, it still was very interesting.

It was also interesting to learn why some sicknesses (especially the flu) can seem to come upon you so quickly. The book does a great job of explaining this phenomenon.

There is also a lot of background material on Woodrow Wilson that I did not know.

All in all - this is a must read! Having read well over 100 audiobooks (and reviewed almost 60), I would rank this in the top 10% of all I have listened to. Highly recommended!

107 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Ruined by painful tangents;80% tangent 20% Disease

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

This should have been edited down! There are brief moments in the sun with this book. I was even more upset when I listened to the afterword! The writer knows his stuff and from the afterword is capable of trimming it down to relevant information but the long tangents on peripheral players in the Influenza pandemic was, two words: excruciating and unbearable!

How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?

When the writer actually talks about the disease and societal or global implications, the information is compelling, smart and wonderful. But this book was destroyed by unnecessary and frustrating tangents on people that were involved or peripheral, at best, to the pandemic. If the story of the doctors were interwoven better with the story on the outbreak it would have eased the pain. For example, the last hour and half (literally) is on a man that played a teeny tiny (and I do mean TINY) role in the Influenza story. It's like, where did that come from? WHY? What?! I like when writers set up the scene for an out break so we can get a feel for the people affected and their lives, but hours and hours and hours and hours of "set up" is unnecessary and quite frankly maddening! Ultimately I was so sad but when the writer actually got to it, it was brilliant. But so much of the book is drowned in tangents!

What about Scott Brick’s performance did you like?

The performance was awesome! His voice was engaging and drew you in. One of the best performances I have heard on audible! It would positively influence my purchase decision to see Scott attached to a project.

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Deep sense of loss; about what this book could have been! This book could have been a masterpiece. You can tell the writer has the knowledge to really pull off a great book but a lack of editing ruined it. I think I was so sad because I saw how awesome the whole book could have been when the writer was compelling, concise and brilliant in the afterword. About the actual story, I am always in awe of nature, the movement of infectious disease and always slightly horrified at the devastation that is left behind in the wake of an event like this.

Any additional comments?

It is so hard for me to give a bad review because I feel bad, knowing someone poured their heart and soul into something but there were times where the tangents were literally painful! It hurt more knowing the writer had the information and talent to do a fabulous job but got way side tracked on sooo many people and strange peripheral story lines that were remotely, very remotely associated with Influenza.

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Fascinating

This book is an extremely interesting review of medicine in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The author does an excellent job of reviewing the state of medicine, the men (there were apparently only men in medicine back then) involved, and how the so-called "Spanish flu" ravaged the world while World War I raged in the background. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in learning how pandemics can emerge and affect people worldwide.

16 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Better than a Stephen King novel - only true.

Very comprehensive book that attempts to trace not just when and where but why the flu happened. The off shoot of this is to describe the state of medicine in the world at that time (mainly in the U. S.). It then describes the event. This is the horror part. It finally describes the current state of medicine - another frightening section. It could happen again.

This book has stayed with me.

47 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

33% great 66% OK

This book was at its best when treating the 1918 influenza itself and not the history of medicine or the micro-biographies of several of the researchers. I learned a lot and enjoyed it, but I also had to put up with a large amount of not very interesting material. Overall, I would still recommend this book to anyone. The interesting parts are too interesting to miss, and the book overcomes all its weaknesses. The narration was quite good.

14 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

the great book

I thought that the history of the flu needed the detailed discussion of the history of the disease, the governments, and the researchers. I didn't think any of it un-necessary. The author and the reader were excellent. I usually enjoy Scott Brick-he makes most books a better listen than a read.

29 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

History of Medicine in America explored

Any additional comments?

What a fascinating look at the history of medicine and medical practice in America. The tale of the spread of disease and the blow by blow experience was harrowing. Well worth a listen.

39 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Pandemics

I heard this book recommended on a podcast.
Recommended by Mitch Daniels, the President of Purdue. It is the best book I have ever read
about the nature of scientific endeavor, the true heroism of those who track down these bacteria and viruses and the importance of their work in understanding emerging and even historical epidemics.
If you want to understand the current Corona virus pandemic there is no better resource.
It should be required reading for all of us during
this latest threat to humanity. We have learned so much, we have so much to learn.

12 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 05-07-20

Interesting subject... horribly boring book...

I don't have anything positive to say about this book... There are far too many things wrong with it but the main complaints would be that it was far too long and had little to no structure... it was a rambling incoherent mess... The level of repetition was beyond irritating ("this was influenza, only influenza" was repeated over and over)... The tangents into the lives and careers of the founding fathers of US medical science could have been siphoned off into separate books as it was a full biography in some cases... The last point leads into my next complaint and that is that this book has a very strong US bias to the point that you would assume from listening to this audio book that the US single handily created modern medical science... I could go on but my last point is in relation to the narration... I didn't like the narrator's style and found his voice and its related tone and diction extremely irritating... Despite how interesting the subject matter is, the book is just poorly written and narrated...

2 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Mark
  • 04-15-20

Dreadful narration and dense dull prose

This should have been an interesting listen, telling an important story that is very relevant to today.

Instead, dense prose gets in the way. Using ten words rather than one and adding complex sentence structures to prove how clever the author is.. You get the idea. But it quickly gets irritating

A fragmented approach doesn’t help. Nor, does the rather dull delivery of someone who sounds robotic and rather disinterested. Avoid avoid avoid.

2 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Katy Gonzalez
  • 06-25-20

Great book

If you like books about medical facts and facts and figures you'll love this intriguing book that includes real life histories of people who survived and died during the 1918 pandemic.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Teun Klein Gunnewiek
  • 05-28-20

impressive, comprehensive, and terrifying

Reading this during the Covid-19 pandemic, really hits home.. Its painfully clear due to the lack of preparation, the large loss of life could have been avoided, if only more people in positions of power had read this. A fantastic overview not only of the pandemic and its wide-ranging effects, but also provides a detailed history of the development of medical science. As a junior biomedical scientist, I loved it!

Furthermore, very clear narration and pace.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Jon C
  • 05-03-20

Fascinating story and very relevant

Excellently researched and constructed into a very listenable story. Especially interesting with the current Covid 19 pandemic

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • mark richardson
  • 04-26-20

fabulous

A terrifying read brought to life by Scott Brick . Cant recommend it enough really.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 04-19-20

unputdownable

Not since reading William Shirer's account of the rise and fall of the third Reich have I read a more detailed account of a major historical event. this is a thumping great read with intricate detail. were I able I would have read it in one sitting

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Ian
  • 03-25-20

US centric view of global pandemic

From the blurb I was expecting a story about the global tragedy but I was disappointed to find that the long book was focussed almost entirely on how it spread in the US (where 1-2% of total global deaths occurred). It is interesting in the current covid-19 context which a certain person refers to as the "China virus", to find that the 1918 influenza epidemic started in Kansas and spread through US army barracks and was delivered to the rest of the world on its troop ships. So it was really "the US virus" if that's how we now name things! From an English reader's point of view the story was partial particularly when addressing the impact on WW1. To refer to Lloyd George and "George" displays an embarrassing ignorance on the part of the author.
Probably the blurb which describes the book as "The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History" should be modified to clarify that it is a US story about US history.

3 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 04-05-20

Dreadful narrator

Exhaustingly boring narrator. Could not fathom listening to him put this extraordinary chapter of history, into the catacombs of tedium.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 07-04-20

Fantastic book - covering a much broader scope

This was a great book about the American experience of the pandemic and also the evolution of the science and practice of medicine from the late 19th century through to the mid 20th century. the book oscillate well between the horror on the ground, to the efforts of those trying to stop the onslaught.

It uses the language of the time and embeds many quotes giving the reader a real feel for the people that are the subject of the text

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 05-23-20

An American History Of The Great Influenza

My only disappointment in this book was that it was so America-centric. it did not tell a world story about the 1918 pandemic. Other than that, it was brilliant. Well told and gave wonderful Insights to how the whole story unfolded. Some of the story is reflected in today and how we are handling the current 2020 pandemic. The story is driven along to a large extent with small bios of different doctors, politicians, and other figures. I became addicted to this book and put it on whenever I could. would thoroughly recommend for an insight into one of the biggest challenges the human race has ever faced.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • M. Watson
  • 05-22-20

Very topical

At this time so pivoting to hear of another pandemic and the worldwide response then.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • JACQUIE
  • 05-22-20

An complicated read

An unwieldy book that attempts to draw politics and medicine and science together, but an eye opener in light of what is happening today. Again, stupid men in positions that would be able to affect change quickly, chose not too. John Barry gives a warning at the end of the book, a prophecy. Little did he know that Trump would be in the White House.