The Spanish Flu

100 years after the Spanish Flu ravaged the globe comes a new account of the pandemic, featured in our Review of the Week

Pale rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world

Spinney, Laura. PublicAffairs, 2017
332p index, 9781610397674 $28.00, 9781610397681 $15.99

Pale rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world book cover

An epidemic, wrote historian Charles Rosenberg, unfolds as a pageant. The 1918–20 influenza pandemic was an array of pageants, great and small, rolling across humanity. This “greatest massacre of the twentieth century,” which caused perhaps 100 million deaths, was a visitation played out in myriad social, religious, political, and ethnic contexts, seemingly capricious and cruelly lethal to young adults. Its public and private trajectories were obscured and fueled by the dislocations of global conflict. Spinney, a journalist, skillfully organizes vast source material, moving seamlessly between the global and the local. She examines the impotence of mainstream medicine (armed with an ineffective vaccine), the grace and courage of missionaries and humanitarians, the often blundering efforts of overwhelmed public officials, and the self-serving dictates of armies and imperialists. Speculation about an alternate post-epidemic 20th-century generational human history, a glimpse into the mysterious post-influenza encephalitis lethargica, and accounts of the nascent field of virology are of particular interest. The book closes with a note on the modern science of trans-species influenza and alarms for the future. A bibliography, in addition to the existing chapter notes, would have enhanced the book’s usefulness.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Undergraduates and general readers.
Reviewer: S. W. Moss, independent scholar
Subject: Science & Technology – Health Sciences
Choice Issue: Jul 2018