Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It Info

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A national bestseller, the fast-paced and gripping account of
the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 from acclaimed science journalist Gina
Kolata, now featuring a new epilogue about avian flu.

When we
think of plagues, we think of AIDS, Ebola, anthrax spores, and, of
course, the Black Death. But in 1918 the Great Flu Epidemic killed an
estimated forty million people virtually overnight. If such a plague
returned today, taking a comparable percentage of the US population with
it, 1.5 million Americans would die.

In Flu, Gina
Kolata, an acclaimed reporter for The New York Times, unravels
the mystery of this lethal virus with the high drama of a great
adventure story. From Alaska to Norway, from the streets of Hong Kong to
the corridors of the White House, Kolata tracks the race to recover the
live pathogen and probes the fear that has impelled government
policy.

A gripping work of science writing, Flu addresses
the prospects for a great epidemic’s recurrence and considers
what can be done to prevent it.

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Reviews for Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It:

4

Feb 02, 2013

”This is a detective story. Here was a mass murderer that was around 80 years ago and who’s never been brought to justice. And what we’re trying to do is find the murderer.”--Jeffery Taubenberger, molecular pathologist

There are estimates that the 1918 Flu killed anywhere from 20 million to 100 million people dwarfing the number of people killed in World War One. Either number is horrifying, but as modern scientists start putting data together the larger number becomes more realistic. I’ve always ”This is a detective story. Here was a mass murderer that was around 80 years ago and who’s never been brought to justice. And what we’re trying to do is find the murderer.”--Jeffery Taubenberger, molecular pathologist

There are estimates that the 1918 Flu killed anywhere from 20 million to 100 million people dwarfing the number of people killed in World War One. Either number is horrifying, but as modern scientists start putting data together the larger number becomes more realistic. I’ve always been fascinated with the 1918 Flu outbreak for a number of reasons, but the one that really sticks with me is that we never defeated it. We never knocked it to the canvas. It came, it killed, it disappeared.



”Historian Alfred W. Crosby remarks that whatever the exact number felled by the 1918 flu, one thing is indisputable: the virus killed more humans than any other disease in a period of similar duration in the history of the world.”

That is a big statement. It makes the Black Plague look like a featherweight. ”How lethal was it? It was twenty-five times more deadly than ordinary influenzas. This flu killed 2.5 percent of its victims. Normally just one-tenth of 1 percent of people who get the flu die. And since a fifth of the world’s population got the flu that year, including 28 percent of Americans, the number of deaths was stunning. So many died, in fact, that the average life span in the United States fell by twelve years in 1918. If such a plague came today, killing a similar fraction of the U. S. population, 1.5 million Americans would die.”


1918 Influenza Virus

Interest was reignited in the 1918 influenza outbreak when swine flu/bird flu showed up in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. China is a hot bed for new influenza bugs because of the proximity of birds/swine/humans. Many times you find all three species under the same roof. Birds cannot pass flu to humans, but they can pass it to swine. Swine, being a close genetic relative to humans, (not that surprising) can incubate a bird flu and pass it to humans. The moral of the story is that pigs, birds and humans should not wallow in the same mud hole. The current thought is that the 1918 flu came to humans via pigs via birds.

”In theory, a bird flu could not infect a human because the virus should require cellular enzymes found in bird intestinal cells but not in human lung cells. Yet if, against all odds, a bird flu virus was infecting people, it would have hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins that had never been seen before by a human being. No human would be immune to such a virus. The whole world was at risk.”


I know he is cute, but he is a deadly assassin.

So there is this very unfortunate pig who becomes infected with a human virus and a bird virus at the same time. He becomes a blender for these two viruses and the next time a human scratches him behind the ears, most likely a child (wonderful incubators), he will pass the new concoction on to humanity which is tragic on many levels, but for the pig especially because who will fill his slop trough if his humans are critically sick.

Before HIV appeared on the scene which would shift all infectious disease researchers in that direction there were teams of scientists searching for samples of the 1918 flu. As is the case with a publish or perish society scientists are not very good at sharing informations, so as one team goes to Alaska to look for victims of the 1918 flu, hopefully still frozen in permafrost, another team is planning to go to an island of Norway with the same thought. When the Alaska team finds a perfectly preserved specimen that information of course is not shared with the rivals even though there was a scientist coordinating both teams. Johan Hultin is the man who makes the find.

”She was an obese woman; she had fat in her skin and around her organs and that served as a protection from the occasional short-term thawing of permafrost.” Hultin explained. “Those on either side of her were not obese and they had decayed. I sat on the pail and saw this woman in a state of good preservation. And I knew that this was where the virus has got to come from, shedding light on the mysteries of 1918.”


Johan Hultin virus detective.

I would hope, and firmly believe that if the world was on the brink of a major pandemic that scientists would pool their research and share any breakthroughs before publishing (being credited) their findings. During the course of this investigation they also found paraffin preserved lung tissue from victims of the 1918 flu stored at the National Tissue Repository maintained by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Nice to know we have such a handy repository of our disease history.

When a deadly influenza swine flu virus showed up in 1976 President Gerald Ford took the initiative ( I know right who would have thunk it.) that for the first time in human history the government was going to try and immunize the whole country. The press was favorable in the beginning of the program, but papers like the New York Post started to turn the tide towards government conspiracy theories. They wrote on October 14th and article That spoke of a seventy-five-year-old woman who winced at the sting of the hypodermic, then had taken a few feeble steps and dropped dead. Then on October 25th, ”the paper suggested that Carol Gambino, the mobster, had been killed by the Mafia using a swine flu shot as the deadly weapon”.

These misguided, uninformed, paranoid beliefs are laughable, but with politicians like Michelle Bachman and with radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh who are suspicious of any government programs, especially if a Democrat is in the White House, and are very loud about their opposition; I’m sure a similar program to try and stop a nasty flu bug before it got started would be met with heavy unwarranted criticism that could ultimately cost a lot of lives. If the 1918 influenza were to appear today we have antibiotics to counter the bacteria that floods the weakened lungs (pneumonia killed as many or more people than the virus) of a virus ridden body so death counts would be reduced from the 1918 level, but due to the efforts of a handful of scientists we do have the ability now to immunize a population if they will let us.

Gina Kolata has taken me on an investigative adventure that not only made science fascinating, but also accessible. I’m scared, but less scared because I have confidence in the ability of our best and brightest to keep the worst nightmares at bay if only we give them the means and we listen to them before the tip over point has been attained. ...more
3

Aug 04, 2008

I love a good disease book. And I think the 1918 flu is just about as fascinating as you can get. But this book talks more about theories and old-timey labs than it does about the human side of this epidemic. Which, let's face it, is what's really interesting. Imagine all of a sudden having a common illness sweep through your community and kill young healthy people so fast that you don't even have time to bury them right. That's some serious shit. This book just didn't do it justice. I would I love a good disease book. And I think the 1918 flu is just about as fascinating as you can get. But this book talks more about theories and old-timey labs than it does about the human side of this epidemic. Which, let's face it, is what's really interesting. Imagine all of a sudden having a common illness sweep through your community and kill young healthy people so fast that you don't even have time to bury them right. That's some serious shit. This book just didn't do it justice. I would like to find another that maybe does a better job.

That being said, this lady's name is Gina Kolata. If you like Gina Kolata, and getting caught in the rain... ...more
5

Sep 23, 2016

Outstanding book with lots of scientific info. So much time and energy was spent by many, many people to find out the cause of the 1918 flu pandemic but alas not definitive answer has yet been found. Will it ever come? This was a really well written, extremely easy to understand and informative read. I recommend this one!
5

Mar 25, 2013

This book was just excellent and that's all that needs to be said.

I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in medical history and likes Germ Theory. Why I didn't study science at university instead of the arts is beyond me.
4

Jan 22, 2016

A good book on the deadly, ill named, spanish flu because today nobody knows where exactly this pandemia begun.

The book is devoted to the history,epidemiology and investigation of this letal virus,that killed over 50 million humans arroun the world in the 1918 pandemia ,the most letal after the black dead,and its final reconstruction by means of frozen inuit lungs,dead by the disease, in the alaskan permafrost
2

Nov 17, 2015

Unfortunately I found the writing horribly awkward and clunky. And worst of all for me, extremely repetitive and long-winded. I'm fairly certain the book could have been at least a third shorter if the redundancies, unnecessary re-explanations, barely related tangents, and overly wordy sentences had been pruned. It brings to mind the way I was taught to write as a history major in college and so many dry history books I had to read: more words are always better, and it's good to restate the same Unfortunately I found the writing horribly awkward and clunky. And worst of all for me, extremely repetitive and long-winded. I'm fairly certain the book could have been at least a third shorter if the redundancies, unnecessary re-explanations, barely related tangents, and overly wordy sentences had been pruned. It brings to mind the way I was taught to write as a history major in college and so many dry history books I had to read: more words are always better, and it's good to restate the same things several times with slightly different wording. The two stars are for the wonderful book this could have been if the fascinating science and history had not been buried beneath all that terrible prose. ...more
5

Sep 17, 2008

I really enjoyed this book. The book covers a range of time from the beginning of the 1918-19 flu right up to still lingering questions about what made that particular flu strain so deadly and why it affected the young and healthy as much as the elderly and very young.

I really learned a lot about the Flu and about the fight to determine its origins and genetic composition. Some of the things in this book mirrored [Book:The Great Influenza:The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History], I really enjoyed this book. The book covers a range of time from the beginning of the 1918-19 flu right up to still lingering questions about what made that particular flu strain so deadly and why it affected the young and healthy as much as the elderly and very young.

I really learned a lot about the Flu and about the fight to determine its origins and genetic composition. Some of the things in this book mirrored [Book:The Great Influenza:The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History], although I've found that of the three or four books I've read recently, none of them mention one symptom that John M. Barry focused on which is a sometimes altered personality for Flu survivors. (In fact, Barry attributes Woodrow Wilson's treatment of the League of Nations to a personalty change brought on by the Flu).

Flu is so rich I hardly know where to begin. In the course of reading the book I learned about a national repository of tissues samples which was put into place by Abraham Lincoln (the thing is beyond huge and a treasure trove of information), a massive and ultimately failed attempt to vaccinate the American public against a swine flu in the 1970s (which may well be a partial explanation for why some people so mistrust vaccines), and the route another deadly flu is likely to take. I gained an understanding of why some in the medical community were so worried about avian flu. It's thought that the 1918-19 flu may well have started in bird, passed to pigs where it mixed with a human flu, and was then transmitted to humans. I also have a better understanding of why (nearly?) every strain of flu has started in southeast Asia (it has to do with a farming system that encourages birds and pigs raised in close proximity).

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book (for me) was that in the beginning when the first group of people attempted to dig up corpses long buried in permafrost with absolutely no protection whatsoever or even any thought about the fact that they might unleash another wave of the 1918-19 flu and kill millions, it seems horrible. By the end the amazing precautions another group wants to take when trying to do the same thing seem downright silly.

I also think it's very interesting that the people who made the biggest strides in uncovering the origins and genetic structure of the Spanish Flu were not scientists who had made studying the Flu their focus. Indeed, one of the people who helped tremendously was a "lowly" lab technician.

The end of the book is in some ways very frustrating because there is still no answer to why that particular flu was so deadly and there were a good five or six promising investigations that were started or yet to be started and I really wanted to know how they turned out. ...more
4

Jul 14, 2009

The book was published in 1999, but it reads like it was written just a few weeks ago. The information Gina presents is so relevant to today that it's eerie. I am fascinated by the parts of history that our textbooks seem to forget, and the 1918 flu is probably one of the largest omissions in our historical texts. In it's two phases ( lighter spring outbreak, followed by the massively deadly fall outbreak) it managed to decrease the world population significantly and took out more lives than WW1 The book was published in 1999, but it reads like it was written just a few weeks ago. The information Gina presents is so relevant to today that it's eerie. I am fascinated by the parts of history that our textbooks seem to forget, and the 1918 flu is probably one of the largest omissions in our historical texts. In it's two phases ( lighter spring outbreak, followed by the massively deadly fall outbreak) it managed to decrease the world population significantly and took out more lives than WW1 and WW2 combined. Utterly devastating and completely forgotten in popular culture. The book starts quickly diving right into historical narrative of the time. the first 5 or so chapters are fascinating, but start to drag a bit when the topic switches to the 1970's swine flu debacle. The book picks up again when the author starts telling the story of modern day scientists investigating the near century old virus. Gina does a great job in putting the potentially boring scientific details into a story that is both informative and entertaining. I highly recommend this book for any history buff, or even anyone interested gaining in depth perspective on what's happening with the H1N1 virus outbreak happening right now.
...more
3

Dec 02, 2007

Right now, I'm thoroughly enjoying this read by NYT reporter Gina Kolata - it does seem odd that with the impact of the 1918 flu we haven't heard more about it or how it changed American life as we know it.

I had no idea Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider dealt with this topic, nor Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, so I am going to now read these two books after this one with a different context and knowledge base - which I hope will give me a deeper appreciation for both.

I'll be Right now, I'm thoroughly enjoying this read by NYT reporter Gina Kolata - it does seem odd that with the impact of the 1918 flu we haven't heard more about it or how it changed American life as we know it.

I had no idea Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider dealt with this topic, nor Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, so I am going to now read these two books after this one with a different context and knowledge base - which I hope will give me a deeper appreciation for both.

I'll be back with my concluding thoughts.

Okay, I'm back. I think this was a good, fast-paced interesting read until the end, when it devolved into scientific political struggles and a muddled message. I found it difficult to keep interest, but finished it because I felt I had invested so much in the story to that point, however the ending left a lot to be desired. It did, however, have a lot of end notes and an extensive bibliography. ...more
2

Nov 17, 2015

"Flu" is a quick, easy, read that skims over the 1918 Pandemic and introduces the reader to the current science of influenza.

However, the book draws no solid conclusions, and has no real ending. It also leaves threads hanging at the conclusion. (We are never told from what virus strain (H1N1) the recovered RNA indicated the 1918 flu belonged. Finally, the chatty biographies of the books personalities were really annoying to have to wade through. (Does it really matter that Kirsty Duncan does "Flu" is a quick, easy, read that skims over the 1918 Pandemic and introduces the reader to the current science of influenza.

However, the book draws no solid conclusions, and has no real ending. It also leaves threads hanging at the conclusion. (We are never told from what virus strain (H1N1) the recovered RNA indicated the 1918 flu belonged. Finally, the chatty biographies of the books personalities were really annoying to have to wade through. (Does it really matter that Kirsty Duncan does Celtic dancing?)

What I am most grateful for is the book's introducing me to Crosby's "America's Forgotten Pandemic". Pass this book up and go straight to "America's Forgotten Pandemic". ...more
5

Jul 09, 2014

Outstanding. I picked it up a second time because it's in my interests, without recognizing it. It was outstanding the second time through, so I finished it again.
3

Jul 05, 2019

This book has received mixed reviews, because the title is something of a bait and switch. The great influenza of 1918 is covered in Chapter One. The rest of the book is about how the memory of that worldwide pandemic has affected modern epidemiology. It discusses some of history’s great epidemics, the search for the 1918 virus after it had disappeared from the population, and the way it influenced decision making in later years when virulent strains appeared and a response had to be developed This book has received mixed reviews, because the title is something of a bait and switch. The great influenza of 1918 is covered in Chapter One. The rest of the book is about how the memory of that worldwide pandemic has affected modern epidemiology. It discusses some of history’s great epidemics, the search for the 1918 virus after it had disappeared from the population, and the way it influenced decision making in later years when virulent strains appeared and a response had to be developed that took into account the possibility of another worldwide pandemic. It is interesting, written for a general audience and published in 2001, but for those who want something more specific to the 1918 pandemic, there are more focused books, such as John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, from 2005, and Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, published in 2017.

There are two chapters dealing with the Swine Flu panic in 1976 and its litigious aftermath. They are informative and well written, going step by step through the decision making processes of the people involved, each trying to weigh the risk of the tiny chance of a disastrous outbreak against the time, expense, and consequences of large scale vaccinations. Everyone was trying to do the right things, but as the consensus built it became harder and harder for people who disagreed to make their voices known. One of the dissenters posed a question that, in hindsight, was so incisive that his name became a shorthand for how to stop runaway consensus, the “Alexander question.”
[His] question was brilliantly simple. He asked what information might make the group change its mind about the need to prepare to immunize the nation against swine flu? Would it be evidence that every swine flu case was mild? Or that no one but the Fort Dix soldiers got the swine flu? Would it make a difference what the timing of the outbreaks was or where they occurred? (p. 142)
Had he pressed his concerns more forcefully he might have changed the outcome of the debate, but he did not, and was ignored. President Ford and Congress were convinced to appropriate $135 million to prepare vast quantities of the vaccine and inoculate the entire population of the United States.

It was a debacle. Swine Flu never reappeared, the massive push to prepare enough vaccine meant that not enough vaccine for that year’s normal strain of flu was made, and the floodgates of litigation were open.
Dr. Hans H. Neumann, who was director of preventive medicine at the New Haven Department of Health, explained the problem in a letter to the New York Times. He wrote that if Americans have flu shots in the numbers predicted, as many as 2,300 will have strokes and 7,000 will have heart attacks within two days of being immunized. “Why? Because that is the number statistically expected, flu shots or no flu shots,” he wrote. “Yet can one expect a person who received a flu shot at noon and who that same night had a stroke not to associate somehow the two in his mind? Post hoc, ergo proter hoc,” he added. (p. 161)
There is also a chapter on the Bird Flu incident in Hong Kong in 1997. Memories of Swine Flu constrained the choices of the epidemiologists and researchers, who were once again facing the prospect of a new strain of the virus, one which seemed to have mutated directly from birds into a human-contagious form which mankind had never been exposed to, and thus would have no resistance against. In the end millions of chickens, ducks, and other fowl were killed, which might (or might not) have prevented further outbreaks.

The book has chapters on two different attempts to find the virus in the bodies of people who died from it in 1918 and who were buried in permafrost, which might have preserved it. A lot of detail is given these expeditions, including biographies of the researchers, the obstacles they encountered, the people they met, the weather, and how they exhumed the bodies and took samples. For all of that, one was a complete bust, because frost heave had raised the bodies into the zone of annual melting, destroying any traces of the virus. In the other expedition only fragments of the virus were found, which were painstakingly sequenced to gradually build up a partial view of the killer from 1918. Since the book was published a great deal more has been learned from additional exhumations and better sequencing tools.

Every year new strains of flu emerge, and we must all live with the knowledge that any one of them could start a worldwide pandemic. With a better understanding of virology and advances in healthcare, the odds of a repeat of 1918 are unlikely in the advanced countries, but even there it would take months to create enough vaccine for all who would need it. For the majority of the world’s population, lacking sanitation and access to effective healthcare, it would be a killer on a massive scale, and with international air travel it could spread across the globe in a matter of days. We should not feel too confident that we can avoid pandemics in the future. ...more
4

Dec 18, 2018

When I wanted to acknowledge the centennial of the worst pandemic in history (yes, far worse than bubonic plague), I didn't know two new books had been released in 2018 by Catharine Arnold and Jeremy Brown, on the 1918 global flu pandemic. It was difficult to find Alfred Crosby's 1989 historical work, so I settled on Kolata's 1999 popular account, since I like her breezy yet scientifically accurate style. Funny thing is, based on synopses of the Arnold and Brown books, our knowledge of the 1918 When I wanted to acknowledge the centennial of the worst pandemic in history (yes, far worse than bubonic plague), I didn't know two new books had been released in 2018 by Catharine Arnold and Jeremy Brown, on the 1918 global flu pandemic. It was difficult to find Alfred Crosby's 1989 historical work, so I settled on Kolata's 1999 popular account, since I like her breezy yet scientifically accurate style. Funny thing is, based on synopses of the Arnold and Brown books, our knowledge of the 1918 flu has not expanded much in the 20 years since Kolata wrote this book.

The author begins her book by mentioning several funny things. She had a lifelong interest in health and infectious diseases, yet knew almost nothing about the pandemic. The more she probed, the more her ignorance made sense. The media in 1918 was strangely silent, and the victims' families and public health officials seemed almost embarrassed to talk about it, a scenario similar to the 1970s-80s early reaction on AIDS. Crosby and Kolata both attribute this to psychological numbing and wartime censorship -- the world had just ended a devastating global war, and no one seemed ready to confront another atrocity.

This book is not a definitive historical guide to what happened in 1918. One could turn to Crosby or Arnold for that. Instead, it operates as numerous detective stories, taking place immediately following the flu's decline, and in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s. Kolata does a good job of weaving these stories together, particularly the efforts to find bodies of victims frozen in the permafrost in order to gain virus samples. Along the way, Kolata talks about the swine flu vaccine misfire during the Ford administration in 1976, and the public health crisis over live chickens in Hong Kong in the late 1990s. Sometimes she goes far afield, in describing Johan Hultin's Alaska adventures in the 1950s, but her journeys are usually enjoyable ones. Other times, her character assessments seem a bit harsh, like her easy dismissal of Kirsty Duncan in the Spitzbergen expedition. (Duncan was appointed Minister of Science in Justin Trudeau's government in Canada, so one could say she had the last laugh.)

What emerges from Kolata's hopscotching across the decades is that science uses the tools available at the time, and often has to retrace its steps as new tools make it possible to conduct studies that were impossible decades earlier. But gaining clarity does not always mean gaining deeper understanding. We know that the 1918 flu was an H1N1 bird flu derivative, we know details of its protein coat, but we don't know why it was so astonishingly virulent, killing close to 100 million people worldwide. Kolata ends her book, not with a series of revelations, but with a series of new questions raised as researchers continued their viral studies at the end of 1999. The last possibility she raises turns out to be one that many scientists accept today: the strain of the virus itself was not particularly aggressive, since it arrived in two waves in early and late 1918 (and perhaps even in 1916-17 in France). Rather, most deaths were caused by an overreaction of the body's immune system, creating a cytokine storm that led to total respiratory failure.

We all now that the rapid mutation of the flu virus makes the annual flu vaccine offered by health authorities a crapshoot at best, though the vaccine is certainly better than nothing. But health authorities also must look at antibody histories of those receiving flu shots, to see if maybe a vaccine, or a particular flu strain, could trigger the kind of cytokine storm that led to a pandemic in its own right. A century later, we are still not close to unlocking all the mysteries of the 1918 flu. And our ability to avoid a future pandemic depends on our increasing our understanding fairly quickly. The problems of the 1976 vaccine show we must avoid making costly errors, as well. ...more
3

Sep 30, 2013

I thought that this informative book about an interesting topic, the influenza epidemic of 1918, made some complex scientific processes approachable by the lay reader. The book reads almost like a biography of influenza; informing readers about previous epidemics/pandemics; similarities and differences between known influenzas; the attempts, both failed and successful, to identify and isolate the various molecular fragments of the viral genes. The focus, of course, was what differentiated the I thought that this informative book about an interesting topic, the influenza epidemic of 1918, made some complex scientific processes approachable by the lay reader. The book reads almost like a biography of influenza; informing readers about previous epidemics/pandemics; similarities and differences between known influenzas; the attempts, both failed and successful, to identify and isolate the various molecular fragments of the viral genes. The focus, of course, was what differentiated the 1918 pandemic from those previous. Why was it so deadly? How did it spread? How was it able to spread so quickly around the world? Who was vulnerable? Who wasn't? Why? Why? Why?

As of the date of publication, 1999, there were tantalizing bits of the mystery that were being slowly revealed through a myriad of scientific investigative techniques made possible by advances in technologies, but the major questions had still not been answered. I am curious enough to look further into the progress made in the intervening years.

Some interesting facts I gleaned from the book are: most flu strains originate in or around Guangdong (formerly Canton), China; the 1918 pandemic killed more than 20 million people in India, alone; there is a connection between the 1918 influenza and swine flu; in an attempt to find extant virus from 1918 flu victims, two different groups of scientists exhumed the graves of people known to have died of the flu. These graves were in permafrost areas of Alaska and Spitsbergen (a region of Norway just 800 miles from the Arctic Circle). The thought was that bodies buried in the permafrost, even decades ago, would deteriorate very, very slowly allowing for the possibility that soft tissue from the lungs of those corpses would still exist, samples of which could be taken and tested, using new technologies that, hopefully, would reveal the virus that caused the flu.

All in all FLU was a good read and very informative. If you are interested in science, medicine, or history this could be a book for you.

One criticism that I have of the book is that the author repeated herself a number of times, using phrasing that she had used before when writing about the same topic. ...more
3

Feb 27, 2017

For me this book had a really rough start. Gina Kolata's writing about the events of the 1918 influenza pandemic almost made me put this book down. The best way I can describe it was that it was choppy without proper transitions. I had to keep going back to re-read passages to see if I missed something. Since it is such an interesting topic for me I stuck with it, and I am glad I did.
I almost wish this was described more of a history of influenza book instead of a weird murder mystery thriller. For me this book had a really rough start. Gina Kolata's writing about the events of the 1918 influenza pandemic almost made me put this book down. The best way I can describe it was that it was choppy without proper transitions. I had to keep going back to re-read passages to see if I missed something. Since it is such an interesting topic for me I stuck with it, and I am glad I did.
I almost wish this was described more of a history of influenza book instead of a weird murder mystery thriller. I found the writing of future outbreaks and their relation to the 1918 influenza much more bearable. I found myself often wondering if the same person even wrote those chapters after the initial discussion on the 1918 events.
I also think this book could really use an updated edition. Since this book was published Jeffery Taubenberger's years of work (as described in a very large portion of this book) finally paid off. In 2005, the CDC made the announcement that the 1918 influenza gene had finally been fully sequenced. It would also be great to add a chapter about the 2009 H1N1 pandemic as it closely relates to this.
I don't think this story will ever end. With my negative thoughts on the writing aside, I think this is an important book to read. Influenza is not as easy to interpret as everyone thinks it is and this book does do a great job in explaining why we shouldn't be complacent when it comes to preparing for the next deadly, perhaps inevitable, influenza outbreak. ...more
3

Dec 27, 2008

An interesting look at a part of our history that can get glossed over sometimes. Unfortunately, this was focused more on the science that went into deciphering the flu rather than the history of the flu itself. While it was an enlightening read, and some of the people who worked on this project were extremely driven, fascinating people, mostly it just made me want to read a good old fashioned history book about the influenza pandemic.

My one real issue was the completely unnecessary pages of An interesting look at a part of our history that can get glossed over sometimes. Unfortunately, this was focused more on the science that went into deciphering the flu rather than the history of the flu itself. While it was an enlightening read, and some of the people who worked on this project were extremely driven, fascinating people, mostly it just made me want to read a good old fashioned history book about the influenza pandemic.

My one real issue was the completely unnecessary pages of lists that Kolata put in - naming every. single. doctor. who attended a particular conference, for instance. It's a waste of space and it mostly just made me drift, especially when two thirds of those doctors and scientists were never mentioned again. ...more
4

Nov 02, 2011

This was a fascinating look at the 1918 Influenza pandemic, but I always seem to run into the same problem with science books. The well-received and highly rated ones are often older, and by the time I get around to reading them, I wish for a more current look at the same topic. I would love to read about outbreaks we've had since 1999 when this was written, like SARS (which I know is not influenza) and the 2009 H1N1 flu.
2

Apr 16, 2018

It was on one of my trips to Goodwill that when I was browsing the book section, I stumbled upon Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata. Unlike the other books that were visibly used and dog eared, this book seemed almost untouched. I bought the book for $1, still shocked about the condition of the book, this being the reason I picked up the book; that and the fact that I was immediately reminded of Rupert Holmes’ song “ It was on one of my trips to Goodwill that when I was browsing the book section, I stumbled upon Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata. Unlike the other books that were visibly used and dog eared, this book seemed almost untouched. I bought the book for $1, still shocked about the condition of the book, this being the reason I picked up the book; that and the fact that I was immediately reminded of Rupert Holmes’ song “Escape” after seeing the authors name above the blue, almost infectious looking title, “Flu”.

It’s 1918, and thousands of people have perished within the span of a couple of months, thousands more fear that they may be next. What was to blame? World War 1? No. The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was to blame. Gina Kolata tells us the story of the mysterious influenza virus that spread throughout the world in 1918. As well as the story of the influenza outbreak that occurred in several military camps and various other locations, Kolata tells the stories of the numerous scientists who studied the virus in attempts to learn about the origins of the deadly virus and the attempts to find a vaccine to thwart future pandemics that would be similar to that of 1918.
The story of the influenza pandemic is told in two ways: through a collection of facts and data and also through personal accounts of scientists studying the virus, as well as those who witnessed the spreading of the virus. One such example was when Kolata describes how a pastor in a small eskimo village in Alaska witnessed more than half of the village’s population die from the influenza virus. Personally, I found it more interesting to read the parts of the book that were told through personal accounts of the people who were affected by the virus. I feel like I could connect more to their stories about how they watched their whole family and almost entire town perish from the likes of the flu. While reading parts of the books that were focused on facts and data, it was harder to follow with all the facts that were being thrown at you. I also found myself skimming over these parts most of the time. Through this book, Kolata tells the story of the “spanish flu” pandemic and tries to find answers to one of history’s biggest medical mysteries.

Typically when we think of the flu, we think of it as harmless, but the way Kolata describes the Flu, in the case of the pandemic of 1918, she brings truth to what the flu actually was like. When she says, “Then it disappeared, returning in the fall with the power of a juggernaut”(8) we see just how monstrous this flu is. Gina Kolata also doesn’t hesitate to include gruesome details of the effects of this influenza, “...your body feebly cries out ‘no,’ you are moving steadily toward death… you die- by drowning, actually-as your lungs fill with a reddish fluid”(4). With these gruesome details, readers get a glimpse into the suffering and pain that those affected by the influenza virus had to undergo. This also puts emphasis on how Gina Kolata wants us to see the massive impact that this virus had on people.
In writing this book, Gina Kolata also sheds light on this pandemic that is hardly mentioned in the history books to inform us about this major pandemic that occurred. Gina Kolata makes sure to emphasize this is instances such as: “Crosby looked at a recent edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The 1918 flu got three sentences. He looked at a recent edition of the Encyclopedia Americana. One sentence was devoted to the flu, and it said that the epidemic killed 21 million people. ‘Which was a gross understatement [since it killed roughly 51 million people]”(52). The fact that many people have such little knowledge on such an important event that has taken place in history is why Gina Kolata has written this book. Because of this, the idea of this being such an important event is highly stressed throughout the book.


Often times, I found that throughout the book, the writing didn’t keep me engaged. The information was very repetitive and I found that there also was a lot of unnecessary information. For example, whenever one of the chapter’s would delve into the life of the scientist that was being focused on in that chapter, there was information included that seemed very unnecessary. For example, “He was born in Stockholm and grew up in a wealthy home in the suburbs of the capital city…” Gina Kolata writes when describing Johan V. Hultin, a scientist who made a significant discovery with the Spanish flu virus. It then continues for several more pages as Kolata writes about Hilton's whole life leading up to his scientific work, which I believe was unnecessary and keeps readers distracted from the main idea of the book.

Even though Flu had some flaws, I found it a good book to read if your interested in learning more about the influenza virus. I would also recommend it to those who are interested in microorganisms and bio-medicine. This book is filled with interesting stories of the deadly influenza virus that took place in 1918, along with the decades long journey of finding the vaccine.
If this were a book that were at least $15, I wouldn’t say it was worth it. But, even though it may not have been what I was expecting when first purchasing this book at Goodwill, I would say that it was $1 well spent. ...more
3

Dec 27, 2010

When the plague came, on those chilly days of autumn, some said it was a terrible new weapon of war.

In 1918, a pandemic hit the world and killed millions of people from China all the way out to the most remote outposts of the Alaskan wilderness. A world already reeling from the disastrous effects of the first World War had to deal with their young people dropping dead from a terrifying illness that cost more American lives than WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam combined. But what caused this When the plague came, on those chilly days of autumn, some said it was a terrible new weapon of war.

In 1918, a pandemic hit the world and killed millions of people from China all the way out to the most remote outposts of the Alaskan wilderness. A world already reeling from the disastrous effects of the first World War had to deal with their young people dropping dead from a terrifying illness that cost more American lives than WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam combined. But what caused this terrible pandemic? Science is still searching for the virus that caused millions of deaths. In this book, Gina Kolata tells the story of the scientists searching for answers.

I picked this book up because after reading In the Shadow of Blackbirds and watching a Downton Abbey episode about the flu epidemic I was interested in the history of the pandemic and what life was like during the time period. Unfortunately only the first chapter is about 1918 and the rest is about the scientists who are trying to isolate the 1918 flu virus. Its not hugely disappointing, but I was wanting more about 1918 itself.

The book is pretty fascinating. I learned a great deal about the process of making vaccines and discovering viruses. There are a great deal of anecdotes that do connect near the end and were very well done. I liked that the book compared the epidemic and the search for the virus to other disease and epidemics.

I recommend this book to those who enjoy medical history and reading about diseases. It is a fascinating read if a bit dated (I would like to find an up-to-date book on the topic). ...more
3

Jul 26, 2009

Get sick, Get well, Hang around the inkwell.

First the good. This timely and credible treatment of influenza fills a critical void. The book is very readable. Although concentrating on historical vignettes to the exclusion of scientific explanations, the book provides a helpful background for the consideration of risk, public policy, and personal preparation that arise from confusing, contradictory, and incomplete news items about flu outbreaks and related public health initiatives.

Kolata clearly Get sick, Get well, Hang around the inkwell.

First the good. This timely and credible treatment of influenza fills a critical void. The book is very readable. Although concentrating on historical vignettes to the exclusion of scientific explanations, the book provides a helpful background for the consideration of risk, public policy, and personal preparation that arise from confusing, contradictory, and incomplete news items about flu outbreaks and related public health initiatives.

Kolata clearly communicates the uncertainties in current understanding of how the flu virus evolves and flue epidemics spread. But she is even-handed to a fault in her descriptions of competing theories and scientists - showing for example way too much patience for the narcissistic Kirsty Duncan.

The major faults in this book are defects of omission. On the policy side, Kolata describes the epidemic of bogus lawsuits that arose from the swine flu scare, but she neglects to follow through with information about the indemnification laws and the excessive industry consolidation that followed. While inferring that dangerous new flu strains emerge from Southeast Asia, she makes no effort to address the distinct possibility of stopping the cycle by regulating China's poultry industry. On the scientific side, Kolata provided no information about the process of "reassortment" that drives the evolution of flu viruses. Also conspicuously absent is clear advice about how to minimize the risks of influenza. ...more
4

Aug 04, 2010

This was on the shelf at the library when I went to get The Great Influenza so I picked it up too. I read this one first---it was shorter. While the basis of the book was the 1918 Influenza, the real story was what happened in science and medicine afterward. While influenza was a known disease, the cause was not yet understood. There were no microscopes powerful enough to see a virus, and by the time anyone thought that might be the cause, the flu was gone, seemingly lost forever. The bulk of This was on the shelf at the library when I went to get The Great Influenza so I picked it up too. I read this one first---it was shorter. While the basis of the book was the 1918 Influenza, the real story was what happened in science and medicine afterward. While influenza was a known disease, the cause was not yet understood. There were no microscopes powerful enough to see a virus, and by the time anyone thought that might be the cause, the flu was gone, seemingly lost forever. The bulk of this book was the scientists who hunted for it and finally found it.

I thought this was well written, easy for me to follow. The technicalities of microbiology were explained at a level that did not cause my eyes to glaze over. I found the portrayal of the scientists interesting, enough of each ones back story to make me appreciate them and cheer for their success.

I did not read the chapter or two on the 1976 flu, with its political ramifications. I could not bear the thought of slogging through that mess so I just skipped it. Otherwise, a quick read with many interesting facts and implications for the future. ...more
4

Jun 13, 2009

A fascinating book about the 1918 "spanish" flu pandemic that swept the globe, killing an estimated 20 million to more than 100 million people worldwide. The virus was most deadly to adults aged 20 to 40 - a portion of the population not usually as vulnerable to infectious disease. The death toll was so high that in the United States the average life expectancy dropped by 12 years.

The book explores the spread of the virus and the search for it remnants in tissue samples to discover why it was so A fascinating book about the 1918 "spanish" flu pandemic that swept the globe, killing an estimated 20 million to more than 100 million people worldwide. The virus was most deadly to adults aged 20 to 40 - a portion of the population not usually as vulnerable to infectious disease. The death toll was so high that in the United States the average life expectancy dropped by 12 years.

The book explores the spread of the virus and the search for it remnants in tissue samples to discover why it was so lethal and if a vaccine can be created against future outbreaks of this particular strain.

Although there is a little more scientific discussion than is probably necessary for the average lay-reader, don't be scared off! This was an interesting read, stunning in its telling and well worth the time! ...more
3

May 06, 2016

Kolata is a journalist- and it shows, she has here catch phrase throughout the book and it ultimately made it tedious. She also has a bit of hero worship for Jeffery Taubenberger- which centered this book around the virology pathway twists and turns and ended up concentrating on the blow by blow nastiness of getting your scientific paper published first.

Most of these books build their foundations on Crosby's book about the flu and focus on the science to nail it down or the ineptitude of civil Kolata is a journalist- and it shows, she has here catch phrase throughout the book and it ultimately made it tedious. She also has a bit of hero worship for Jeffery Taubenberger- which centered this book around the virology pathway twists and turns and ended up concentrating on the blow by blow nastiness of getting your scientific paper published first.

Most of these books build their foundations on Crosby's book about the flu and focus on the science to nail it down or the ineptitude of civil government to handle the next pandemic.

It does not deal with the fact of why an entire world population chose to forget losing close to a fifth of its population in roughly 2 years. ...more
3

Feb 09, 2015

Starting with history and moving towards modern science, this is a great book for anyone interested in understanding influenza. Although the 1918 pandemic isn't discussed frequently, I really enjoyed learning about it not only because of its virulence but also because it explains what the designations H1N1 etc. actually mean, why we need so many flu vaccines every year, and why so many new strains of flu are discovered in China. Definitely fascinating with very light descriptions of the genetic Starting with history and moving towards modern science, this is a great book for anyone interested in understanding influenza. Although the 1918 pandemic isn't discussed frequently, I really enjoyed learning about it not only because of its virulence but also because it explains what the designations H1N1 etc. actually mean, why we need so many flu vaccines every year, and why so many new strains of flu are discovered in China. Definitely fascinating with very light descriptions of the genetic and molecular biology involved in retrieving long-dead diseases. ...more
2

Jan 20, 2016

Very interesting story of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, seriously undercut by the fact that the content of the story is 180 degrees different from what the author said it would be at the outset. She starts out by listing all the places the flu virus would be found in the course of the book, then goes on to explain in the individual chapters that no researcher has managed to find it anywhere. WTF?

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