Tuesday, June 18, 2024
What's Readable

Laura Spinney Weaves a Fascinating Tale of the Dark History of the Spanish Flu

Image courtesy of author’s website.


–By Michael Pierce

If you’re interested in learning about humans’ complicated history with the flu, then check out Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney (published in 2017 by Public Affairs).

It’s been said that a person could watch the unrelenting process of dying of Spanish Influenza on themselves. An individual would begin experiencing normal flu symptoms – body ache, fever, sore throat, coughing, sneezing – until the illness took a sinister turn. The victim’s face would turn a deep mahogany color. Their fingers and toes would start turning black, and the blackness would creep up arms, legs, and throughout the rest of the body. Breathing would become difficult. Delirium would set in as the fever climbed higher. Some survivors stated they experienced “washed out” vision, where colors seemed to fade, a sensation much like being outside on a sunny day and closing their eyes tightly for a minute or so. When they opened their eyes everything seemed to have a bluish, “washed out” appearance.

Fifty million people died. Or was it a hundred million? The epidemic began in a small town in Kansas, or maybe it began in France, or China, or maybe it actually did begin in Spain. It may have originated in ducks, since research indicates that some ducks can carry upwards of 150 different strains of the influenza virus. Maybe it began in pigs, or the pigs possibly caught it from the ducks. Either way, the virus ultimately jumped to humans, where it was primarily transmitted from person to person through the snot and saliva of infected individuals.

It traversed the globe in three waves between 1918 and 1920. It was spread by soldiers returning home from the meat grinder that the Great War had become. Erich Ludendorff, the German commander, would always believe that the sickness changed the course of the war as it moved through the trenches in France. It was spread by infected traders, over land and by sea, as they navigated the world with their goods. It hit Bristol Bay, Alaska very hard, decimating the town by killing off forty percent of its population.

The epidemic shaped world history. People felt that medical science had failed, and this led to the rise of homeopathy, naturopathy, and other forms of alternative medicine. People upset with the perceived failure of medical science blamed their various governments, fomenting revolution in many places. Another type of revolution took place with the establishment of national healthcare in most of the world. Governments learned that national healthcare programs made it easier to enforce necessary rules during medical disasters, and it lessened the chance of revolution.

Photo of author, Laura Spinney. Photo courtesy of author’s website.

Pale Rider is a medical, social, and political history of the 1918 epidemic. Author Laura Spinney also details how the epidemic affected the arts and the economy, as some artists portrayed the effects of the epidemic, both realistically and symbolically, in their work. The world economy changed as it became difficult to find workers, and as workers who survived struggled to get back up to speed at their jobs.

Spinney has gone into quite minute detail in her description of the virus and how it quickly spread around the world, and how it can still be researched today due to the fact that bodies buried in permafrost in some parts of the world can be exhumed and tissue samples taken from them.

This reviewer’s only issue with this book is that I wish she would have gone into more detail regarding how the epidemic affected the aforementioned aspects of life. But, that’s my problem. Give it a read, especially if you’re into medical history. It’s a fascinating story.



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