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Publisher's Summary

No disease the world has ever known even remotely resembles the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Presumed to have begun when sick farm animals infected soldiers in Kansas, spreading and mutating into a lethal strain as troops carried it to Europe, it exploded across the world with unequaled ferocity and speed. It killed more people in 20 weeks than AIDS has killed in 20 years; it killed more people in a year than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century. Victims bled from the ears and nose, turned blue from lack of oxygen, suffered aches that felt like bones being broken, and died. In the United States, where bodies were stacked without coffins on trucks, nearly seven times as many people died of influenza as in the First World War.

In his powerful new book, award-winning historian John M. Barry unfolds a tale that is magisterial in its breadth and in the depth of its research, and spellbinding as he weaves multiple narrative strands together. In this first great collision between science and epidemic disease, even as society approached collapse, a handful of heroic researchers stepped forward, risking their lives to confront this strange disease. Titans like William Welch at the newly formed Johns Hopkins Medical School and colleagues at Rockefeller University and others from around the country revolutionized American science and public health, and their work in this crisis led to crucial discoveries that we are still using and learning from today.

Now with a new afterword.

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

Critic Reviews

"Gripping....Easily our fullest, richest, most panoramic history of the subject." ( The New York Times Book Review)
"An enthralling symphony of a book, whose every page compels." ( Booklist)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings


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  • 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.

19 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Nancy
  • West Cornwall, CT, USA
  • 07-01-08

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.

53 of 55 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Tim
  • Fremont, NE, United States
  • 01-15-09

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!

64 of 68 people found this review helpful

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

35 of 37 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Sandra
  • Boise' Idaho United States
  • 04-26-06

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.

20 of 21 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • John
  • Vestavia Hills, AL, USA
  • 11-11-08

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.

30 of 32 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Required reading in 2006

I was interested in this story because my mother was born during the flu epidemic of 1918-19 and the doctor who delivered her died before he could sign her birth certificate. I was always curious about how a healthy person could die that quickly, with stories of bodies of flu victims being stacked "like cord wood" because there weren't enough healthy people to bury the dead. This book is so much more than a story about that pandemic.

It is a remarkably well-researched history of medicine starting with Hippocrates. Making medicine into an empiric science and transforming medical education were occurring just prior to this epidemic. We learn about how the flu affected the role of laboratory science, epidemiology, bacteriology, virology, public health and military medicine. Mr. Barry does an incredible job of explaining immunological and pathological concepts for the lay audience. He gives us much food for thought about the present influenza worries.

This audiobook is highly recommended for the general audience. I would really like to see it as required reading for medical students.

29 of 32 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

The Great Infulenza

Excellent, absolutely excellent. It is both informative and frightening. Great information on the development of medical science in America, the biology of a disease, the stupidity & ignorance of politicians and what can happen if we are not careful; all rolled into a novel that is easily understood. Recommended for all and guaranteed to scare you.

17 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Michael
  • Walnut Creek, CA, United States
  • 02-01-07

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.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Carolyn
  • Glen Mills, PA, USA
  • 10-04-09

Fascinating Account, Relevant Today

As I write this review in the fall of 2009, I am struck by the relevance of what happened 90 years ago to the swine flu pandemic of today. I learned from this book that the H1N1 virus that is threatening us today is the same virus from the Spanish flu back then (the author also explains how the Spanish flu got its name). The relevance of this book may be diminished by next spring, should the swine flu pandemic this winter turn out to be a false alarm. But listening to this book will hopefully help prepare the reader in taking precautions to prevent infection. Medicine has made huge advances since the Great Influenza. Whether those advances can prevent humans suffering a repeat of the tragedies of 1918 remains to be seen.

The book is quite lengthy, so if you have minimal patience and want to skip over the background of medical history to get to the influenza outbreak, I suggest you skip ahead to the 2nd part of the audio book. While you will be missing some interesting historical information, such information is not vital to the understanding of the influenza outbreak. The most important part of the book is how deadly the H1N1 virus is and what steps should be taken to prevent its spread. This information could be very important in the winter of 2009-2010.

16 of 19 people found this review helpful