The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (2004) is about the 1918 flu. I started reading it today after enjoying his 2017 article How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America. Here are quotes and comments on the prologue:
In 1918 an influenza virus emerged—probably in the United States—that would spread around the world, and one of its earliest appearances in lethal form came in Philadelphia. Before that worldwide pandemic faded away in 1920, it would kill more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history. Plague in the 1300s killed a far larger proportion of the population—more than one-quarter of Europe—but in raw numbers influenza killed more than plague then, more than AIDS today.
The lowest estimate of the pandemic’s worldwide death toll is twenty-one million,
He says 21m is a bad estimate, the truth is likely more like 50m and could be 100m. And the world population was 1/3 as much back then as today.
And that this underestates how bad it was b/c it killed young adults, not just elderly and babies like the flu usually mostly kills. Roughly half of deaths were people aged 20-39.
Young adults dying is worse than the elderly dying because more future years of life are lost. Babies dying is also better than young adults because not many resources have been invested in a baby yet. (This paragraph is my own blunt comments, which are not representative of the book.)
And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.
Scary. And I had no idea this had happened. I'm pretty sure I'd heard the words "Spanish Flu" (misnamed) before, but had no idea what it actually was. By contrast, I've heard plenty about the black plague and AIDS.
He says it’s kinda the first time we (well a few ppl, but they had outsized impact) dealt with something like this with science instead of religion.
After humans do anything great, people think it’s dangerous and set up rules and institutions to harness, control and contain that human power. That’s what the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration – other countries have similar agencies) now does to our medical pioneers. 100 years after the 1918 flu, with the COVID-19 threat scaring the world, I actually don't know, with confidence, that we're in a better position to face it. Yes science has advanced, but it's also more controlled now. Plus science has been mainstreamed and let in far too many mediocre social climbers and low-initiative, uncreative follower-types (too quickly, without enough cultural assimilation, and without enough requirement that they can actually achieve anything, paid for with mostly government funds with little accountability and no need for profit).
In a way, these researchers had spent much of their lives preparing for the confrontation that occurred in 1918 not only in general but, for a few of them at least, quite specifically. In every war in American history so far, disease had killed more soldiers than combat. In many wars throughout history war had spread disease.
I knew wars had a lot of non-combat deaths (from weather, malnutrition and other stuff too, besides disease) but didn't know the particular statistic that I've italicized in the quote.
Not until late—very late—in the nineteenth century, did a virtual handful of leaders of American medical science begin to plan a revolution that transformed American medicine from the most backward in the developed world into the best in the world.
William James, who was a friend of—and whose son would work for—several of these men, wrote that the collecting of a critical mass of men of genius could make a whole civilization “vibrate and shake.” These men intended to, and would, shake the world.
To do so required not only intelligence and training but real courage, the courage to relinquish all support and all authority. Or perhaps it required only recklessness.
I think Ayn Rand would have liked this even though it speaks of a small group changing the world instead of a single individual. The last sentence about recklessness shows the author's own mixed thinking: he's not really sure what side he's on or why. But he still managed to say something nice. Maybe he said it because it's true – and he knows it's true in a particular case in the field where he has detailed, expert knowledge – rather than because it's nice. (It can of course be both true and nice.)