In 2005, I read an incredible nonfiction book that touched me on many levels. It spoke to me personally, as I knew my ancestors had been affected by the subject matter, and as a public servant, I found the public policy aspects very interesting. Additionally, as someone who really enjoys history, it illuminated the past in a profound way. This book has always been one of the 10 titles that I recommend to people. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic affects every one of us, and as people lament, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this,” I am quick to recommend this book.
The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry is an extraordinary book that chronicles what was known as the “Spanish Flu” pandemic that circled the globe from 1918 through 1920. One of the most interesting points I discovered in the book was how research medicine was really in its infancy at this point.
Even more surprising to me was that the “germ theory” of how disease is spread was not completely understood and had only very recently been considered “settled science.” As hard as it is for us to believe today, this likely meant that many people still didn’t understand why public gatherings were dangerous during a pandemic. This wasn’t all that long ago in the grand scheme of things. In fact, all four of my grandparents were alive during the pandemic.
An issue of similarity between today’s pandemic and the 1918 pandemic is the lack of a quick, centralized, and coordinated response. In the case of the 1918 pandemic, the lack of response likely fostered an environment that prolonged the illness. There were many reasons why there was no centralized response in 1918. Quite simply, there was no Department of Health and Human Services, no Centers for Disease Control, and no World Health Organization to coordinate broad action in 1918.
There are also many reasons why the centralized response has been slow in 2020, but one key takeaway is that uncertainty in the early days likely made the situation even more difficult in both pandemics.
Growing up, the 1918 pandemic was frequently pulled out as the setting for family stories told by my grandparents’ generation. One such story involved my grandfather who was a Kansas farm boy who enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I. The family story always went, “He was in the Army, but he got sick. When it was time to ship out, the war was over.”
Even at a young age, I could never quite understand how someone becoming ill would prevent a military deployment. When I read The Great Influenza, I discovered that, although it was colloquially dubbed the “Spanish Flu,” the origins of the flu in the U.S. may have been in Kansas. Specifically, the first reported case was at Ft. Riley—very close to Burlingame, Kansas, and where my grandfather reported and was organized in a “depot brigade.”
The Great Influenza was a terrific read that I found to be enlightening both personally and professionally. If you’re looking for a new eBook on a timely topic, I would strongly recommend it!
Steven V. Potter
MCPL Director & CEO