In case you haven’t heard, there’s a potential pandemic flu floating around now, enough to make the US government have a website. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention publishes alerts like “Interim Guidance for People who have Close Contact with Pigs in Non-commercial Settings.” Really. They do. So far, even though as of last week there were 40,000 American cases of H1N1 flu, we seem to have dodged a bullet. So far.
Back in January and February, I decided to start researching the deadliest pandemic of the last century. Part of that was to teach it in Stochastic Processes. My students enjoyed the topic (even though they didn’t like the course that much; it does take a real interest in mathematical modeling to like this stuff.) I put an H1N1 question on their final exam in late April. Who knew? Well, maybe the hypothetical conspiracy plotters, but nobody else. My preparation included reading a well-regarded book on the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza – the story of the deadliest pandemic in history – by John M. Barry. What I was looking for was, well, a disease thriller – the story of what happened, when, and how much it hurt. How did the “Spanish flu” get around the world? Did anything work? What was the cost?
In this book, I got that. Unfortunately, I got another basically unrelated book, as well; a history of medical schools and medical research at the end of the 19th century. This is a shame. If you like biographies, full of reports about this scientist not liking that scientist, or this political fight, the other book is for you. There’s lots, and lots, of that. Mr. Berry claims in the Acknowledgments, “This book was initially supposed to be a straightforward story of the deadliest epidemic in human history, told from the perspectives of both scientists who tried to fight it and political leaders who tried to respond to it. … it didn’t seem possible to write about the scientists without exploring the nature of American medicine at this time.”
He’s wrong. Actually, he wrote that book inside this bigger one. That book, well, would be really, really good. It wouldn’t be spectacular, because there are still problems. One is that Mr. Berry has a catchphrase, the title of this post. He repeats it a lot. It’s not a good catchphrase either, unlike, say Where’s the Beef? Like the commercial, there’s a whole lot of gossip bun around the pandemic beef.
Nevertheless, there is a good bit of beef. (If you like the scientist stuff, you’ll find even more.) One is why the flu is called “Spanish”. As Mr. Berry explains, the flu did not start in Spain; the most valid theory is, of all places, Kansas. During World War I, Spain did not practice press censorship, and let disease reports flow freely. Thus the name. Other places, including the good ol’ USA, hid details as much as possible. Part of this was military as described in this PBS interview, but part was also to “prevent panic”. It was interesting. Additionally, the hypothesis about President Wilson at the 1919 Paris peace conference is Chapter 32 is extremely illuminating. And, as a side note, three Congressmen were taken by the flu. These details, and statistics, are invaluable. You can find some at the Stanford page and through Wikipedia, yet the good book provides more context and a better story.
Let me give you the chapters for this better book. Read the Prologue, Chapter 6, 11, 13 through 18, 26 through 35, and the Afterward. That book, by itself, would get a 4. However, combined with the extra scientist social club, reduces The Great Influenza to a 2 out of 5. And I very much hope there will be no book about the current H1N1 pandemic of 2009 to top this one.