Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Wonderful book about a terrible time

I'm reading The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History, by John M. Barry, a fascinating book about the Spanish Influenza in 1918-1919. It's a great book because it begins in the 1870s with the sorry state of American medicine, details the enormous strides a core group of American scientists made in the years before WWI, lucidly explains how viruses work, and tracks the inexorable progress of the disease. I'm only halfway through the book, and have just gotten to the point where it's turned into an epidemic, world-wide. If the book continues in the second half to be as good as it was in the first half, it will rank as one of the best science/history/social studies books I've read since, well, since I can't remember when. UPDATE: I'm about 2/3 of the way through the book now and am deep in the worst part of the epidemic. Mr. Barry's prose has become slightly empurpled as he tries to convey the horror of it all, but I appreciate his effort to give his readers the mise en scène of living in an epidemic. What's almost more horrifying than the disease itself is how bad the governments (federal and local) were in the face of this disease. Turns out that, in 1918, Philadelphia had what was probably the most corrupt civic government around. This corruption led to the fact that Phillie took no steps initially to stop the disease's spread, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. The U.S. Government and Military, too, did nothing. They were so totally focused on a "victory at all costs" war effort that they entirely ignored any warnings from the medical community. And these were not Cassandra-like direct predictions, made when things were looking good. These were warnings issued when cantonments (the huge camps established for draftees all of the U.S.) were filled with thousands of sick and dying.