John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History is seemingly a “Great Man” approach to history, but also approaches the subject matter from an ecological, if not better called “epidemiological” perspective. In the first chapter to this book, Barry gives the reader a brief introduction to the history of medicine, chronicling this history from as far back as Hippocrates until just before the 1918 influenza pandemic erupted, thus granting the reader context to where medical science stood just prior to the outbreak. In this introduction to the history of medicine Barry focuses on the contributions of men like Hippocrates, Galen, Harvey, and others who mark the progress that medical science made throughout the centuries leading up to the 20th. Throughout the rest of the book Barry also makes reference to the men, and several women, who contributed to managing, if not always successfully, the 1918 Influenza pandemic in the United States. Men like Paul Lewis and Simon Flexner who each played their own pivotal roles in studying and combatting the outbreak. Men like Wilmer Krusen, who, as a prominent member of the Department of Health and Charities, in Philadelphia remained adamant publicly that there was no epidemic despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary. And men like Dr. Loring Miner, who due to his praiseworthy records made it possible for historians, like Barry, to conclude that the 1918-1919 Influenza pandemic could have originated in Haskell County, Kansas. Throughout the rest of the book Barry sought to support his argument that the 1918 influenza pandemic originated in Haskell County, Kansas (citing sources from the aforementioned Loring Miner), and in doing so used an epidemiological perspective to trace the disease’s path in reverse across the globe. All the while, Barry referenced all manner of primary sources from hospitals, military outposts, newspaper articles, etc. to better support his argument.
Historiographically speaking I found it interesting that several of the secondary sources to which Barry referred in this book varied in their approaches. Dorothy Ann Pettit, in her book A Cruel Wind: America Experiences the Pandemic Influenza, 1918-1920, A Social History¸ analyzes the 1918 pandemic with an eye to the future, similarly to Barry. Both of these authors use their historic works to caution contemporary lawmakers about the dangers of future pandemics that will, in their opinions, undoubtedly come in the future. Considering the recent Zika outbreak these warnings are timely. My one critique is that, at times, Barry’s warnings sound close to doomsday prophecy, and he makes his claim for the importance of funding influenza research at the expense of belittling other valid medical research being presently performed. Alfred Crosby’s book, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, examines the 1918 pandemic with a focus on the strange public amnesia America has regarding that outbreak, while also examining the importance of this historic outbreak with, at the time of publication, recent pandemics like SARS and Asian flu. Again, as with Pettit’s book, it is fitting that this book was published in the wake of such outbreaks, while also researching that public amnesia which can hinder decisions in the face of future outbreaks of disease. Richard Collier’s book, The Plague of the Spanish Lady: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919, takes a more social, or even oral history, approach, creating his story based on the personal experience of hundreds of survivors. Another of my critiques, here, is that there are certain demographics to which Barry affords little, if any, representation; i.e. women (with the exception of Anna Wessel Williams) and people of color, to name two. Where were women and people of color during this pandemic? How did it affect them? What roles did they play in its management or in their own communities as they struggled to endure the disease? Nevertheless, Barry’s book was favorably received. Reviewers like Norah Shire of Public Health Reports, Robert Welch of America, and Richard Slimowitz of the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy all praised Barry for his masterful storytelling and for tying a significant medical and historical period into the present to encourage those in positions of authority to remain alert and responsible in the face of future pandemics that mankind could face.
Overall I think this book offers many things to historians and public historians alike. There are lessons that can and should be adopted in any potential exhibits on this oft forgotten, albeit traumatic, period in American history. Most of all I think the lesson to be taken from this text is its modern relevance. Within the text, Barry supports his argument of contemporary significance by citing recent outbreaks of various diseases and influenza strains like H5N1 in 1968 and 1997 and SARS and H7N7 in 2003. Barry’s argument that a new pandemic is not a matter of if but when holds clear merit. Therefore, it would make great sense for any museum or exhibition to draw connections between these outbreaks and that of 1918-1919 to both better engage the audience, and perhaps even promote the kind of mobilized change that Barry sought through The Great Influenza. Despite having some criticisms for the book, by and large I do commend Barry for taking an often forgotten piece of American history and using it to urge the public conscience to action, to which, given his presence on several government and university boards regarding medical research on influenza and pandemics post-publication, he would seem to be successful.
 John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (Penguin Books, 2004). P. 16.
 Ibid, pgs. 16,17, and 19-20.
 Ibid, pgs. 4 & 78.
 Ibid, p. 202.
 Ibid, p. 92
 Book summary from Amazon.com (https://www.amazon.com/Cruel-Wind-Pandemic-America-1918-1920/dp/0971542813)
 Book summary from Amazon.com (https://www.amazon.com/Americas-Forgotten-Pandemic-Influenza-1918/dp/0521541751)
 Book summary from Amazon.com (https://www.amazon.com/Plague-Spanish-Lady-Influenza-Panademic/dp/0749002468)
 John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (Penguin Books, 2004). P. 71.
 Ibid, Pgs. 454 & 459.