In the vague chronicles of family history acquired piecemeal in childhood there are always mysterious bits that get added in later or never quite seem to fit. My maternal grandmother told me once, when I was complaining about my little sisters no doubt, about her sister—a young woman named Josie whom she adored. Josie loved the theater, an ethnic, vaudevillian, song-and-dance entertainment that appealed to immigrants at the turn of the century in New York. And she had a talent for it and could sing, all aptitudes destined to go unremarked in the conservative Catholic world in which she came of age.
“What happened to her?” I asked, imagining a relative to claim who became famous on Broadway or in the Ziegfeld Follies. But there was no celebrity grand-aunt shining on my family tree. Josie died in 1918 in the great flu epidemic. Her young husband died, too. Years later I would find out from my mother that Josie’s two-year-old son was taken in by my newly married grandmother and raised as her own child. The 1918 flu claimed more than 19,000 young people in New York in the space of a few months, half-a-million in the U.S., more than 21 million worldwide. In that deadly year, the flu killed more people than World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined.
Gina Kolata’s dramatic reconstruction of the lethal influenza pandemic and the late 20th-century scientific struggle to isolate its cause is a real page-turner. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It adds up the staggering human cost of a virulent killer that struck overnight and altered the course of history. The facts of the suffering and death, the instantaneous spread of the incurable, horrible plague and the futile efforts to contain and cure it are stunning. The contemporary race to find the DNA of the virus in decades-old tissue samples stored in warehouses, or harvested from exhumed bodies beneath the northern permafrost is as theatrical as science gets.
When Kolata researched and wrote her book, scientists were deeply immersed in isolating genetic information to identify the cause of the rapid deaths from the 1918 flu. People who complained of a fever and headaches sickened so rapidly that they were often dead within days—or hours. They died painfully as their lungs filled up with blood-tinged liquid and suffocated them. Their skin darkened and feet blackened and there was no relief for their agony. So many people died so quickly that there were no morgues, undertaker parlors, cemetery plots or caskets to handle the bodies. “Plague” victims were sometimes left on door steps for collection like garbage and disposition in mass graves. Survivors were terrified of becoming infected.
The flu took young adults in the healthy prime of life. It often spared babies, toddlers and the elderly, typically the first victims of flu outbreaks. No one understood the mysterious killer but the world reeled under the impact of rapid spread and massive death counts. In a sense, our panicked reaction to flu outbreaks like SARS and Swine Flu stems from the indelible terror impressed on every society by the 1918 flu. Kolata creates vivid images of expeditions to find tissue samples, meticulous and arduous laboratory procedures, years of disappointments and the rare breakthrough that advanced the quest for knowledge. The book is an amazing read.
Some of the scientists conducting experiments and research when Kolata wrote Flu have since concluded that the epidemic of 1918 was a cause-and-effect killer. In 2008, they announced that the strain of flu in 1918 stripped the nose and throat of its protective cells, allowing deadly strains of bacterial pneumonia to invade the body and destroy its host. Modern medicine had not advanced enough at the time to find and stop the virus or protect those who first sickened from deteriorating further. The researchers speculate that a large number of people would have been saved if there were antibiotics to counter the bacteria infections.
In 1918, as WW I raged and the disease decimated military bases, cities and industries, the blow dealt by the flu pandemic was not easily absorbed. It had far reaching economic and human consequences. Most families can trace losses to the devastating outbreak. I wonder what difference Josie would have made to our family had she lived well into her eighties, like my grandmother. Some of the questions raised by contemplation of a plague can never be answered in a lab, or a book.
Flu : The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic Gina Kolata | Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000