Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Influenza blog.

I was at the Schaumburg Township Library on Sunday -- planting the garden didn't take all day, after all -- and I passed by a display of new hardbacks. The Great Influenza by John M. Barry was one. I picked it up immediately, and now it's my commuting-time book. I needed one, having finished The Great Hill Stations of Asia last week, a wonderful combination of travel and history.

Apart from a few minor, but annoying writing tics -- such as the overuse of 'and' to begin sentences -- The Great Influenza is fascinating. Morbidly fascinating, sometimes, since it is about a plague. But of course it's more than just the story of disease and death. This, from the prologue: "It is also a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and how one changes the way one thinks, of how amidst near utter-chaos a few men sought the coolness of contemplation, the utter calm that precedes not philosophizing but grim, determined action.

"For the influenza pandemic that erupted in 1918 was the first great collision between nature and modern science. It was the first great collision between a natural force and a society that included individuals who refused either to submit to that force or to simply call upon divine intervention to save themselves from it, individuals who instead were determined to confront this force directly, with a developing technology and with their minds."

So it's a history of science, too, and I think I see where he's going. Inasmuch as there's any discussion today about the reaction to the pandemic, it's limited to noting that public meetings were banned, and people wore masks, and none of it did any good. I suspect Barry's out to revise that notion, and posit that the reaction to the plague was a good deal more sophisticated than that, and perhaps did do some good.

Part of the attraction of a book like this is learning more about something important that I only know in outline, and that it feeds my enduring interest in my grandfathers' time. But it also makes me wonder about the sinkhole of human memory. According to Barry, the lowest estimated number of deaths from the plague is twenty million, worldwide, but "epidemiologists today estimate that influenza likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million." Moreover, "if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus."

Those are astonishing numbers. How is it, then, the 1918 influenza is so faintly remembered? It hasn't even been 90 years. It's remembered far less than, just to name a famous death-dealing event, the loss of the Titanic, or to use an example that hasn't been romanticized by Hollywood recently, the Johnstown Flood.


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