“The 1918 influenza epidemic is one of history’s great conundrums,” Gina Kolata writes in introducing the fascinating medical and scientific stories gathered together in her new book. As the subtitle explains, they are about the flu of 1918, and about recent efforts “to resurrect the virus’s genetic code,” which she believes may soon provide
a key clue in a medical mystery story that is as astonishing as the 1918 influenza itself. It involves science and politics, at their most confused, and at their finest. It involves a virus that is one of the worst killers ever known. And it involves researchers who became obsessed with tracking the virus down. Like all good mystery stories, it also has elements of serendipity and surprise.
It is a story that begged to be told, both for the sheer drama of the tale and for its implications. The resolution of the mystery could help scientists save humanity if that terrible virus or another like it stalks the earth again.
Allowing for a bit of enthusiastic exaggeration, the book delivers everything she promises. Artfully (indeed archly) constructed as a detective story, it tells how heroes and heroines of science, working in obscurity and on their own, encountered not wicked but pompous, misguided, or perhaps merely jealous scientific colleagues, and prevailed in the end. Or perhaps not, since the sequence of only one of the 1918 flu virus’s eight genes had been discovered when she finished her book. Nor had her heroes yet found any distinctive difference between it and other flu viruses that would explain its unusual lethal effects and permit the manufacture of a vaccine that would be fully effective in preventing its recurrence.
The book begins with a sketch of what happened in 1918: how an epidemic that took the medical establishment completely aback first came to public attention in Spain, largely because that country was neutral in World War I and allowed news of the infection to get out, whereas elsewhere military censors kept initial outbreaks secret. But in fact the “Spanish flu” seems to have broken out at almost the same time in many different parts of the world. The United States, Central and South America, remote Eskimo villages in Alaska, as well as Europe and Asia were all affected, and it was in Asia that by far the heaviest loss of life occurred. Expert, but always unreliable, estimates of flu deaths in India alone rise as high as 20 million, and for the world as a whole anywhere between 40 and 100 million are believed to have died.
In the United States, Kolata declares, 28 percent of the entire population fell ill and 2.5 percent of those infected died. But accurate figures for American deaths from the flu of 1918 do not exist, partly because pneumonia often followed the flu and was often listed as cause of death, and partly because at the height of the epidemic in locality after locality record keeping in general and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.