The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

This semester has been my first real introduction to historiography (beyond Alan Bennett’s The History Boys!) and as I’ve immersed myself more and more in historical method, it’s become easier for me to pick apart how exactly a writer is constructing their historical account – what are they focusing on, what are they ignoring, what are their goals. Reading John M.  Barry’s The Great Influenza, it becomes very clear how he’s structuring his book. Barry is a journalist, and his writing flows easily, with history and virology fitting together to create dramatic arcs and suspense. This book could have passed for a horror novel, as he describes “blood … pouring out of some men’s nostrils and even ears” (pg. 189). Many passages involved zingy one-liners that could have served as textual soundbites, such as “in the meanwhile the killing continued” (pg. 296). While the structure of The Great Influenza often feels a bit too manufactured, the back-and-forth between events and their context allows for putting together a traditional, linear idea of the Spanish flu epidemic while understanding the larger picture and the nuances of the situation.

While the style and construction of Barry’s writing does a lot to make the topic accessible and engaging to a lay audience, there are two of his practices that discourage engagement with historical or scientific thinking.

The first practice involves the integration of sources into the body of the text, although I’m not sure if this is a fault of Barry or his editor. I have to laugh at myself here — I knew there were endnotes, but could not for the life of me find the numbered indications in the text. Why? I finally realized: they’re not endnotes, but page numbers that quote the text the reference or note is for, with no corresponding mark in the main text. Barry includes an incredibly diverse bibliography that lists 20 pages’ worth of primary and secondary sources, but the layout of these pseudo-endnotes makes the reader go through extensive work to see how information is cited, if it is at all. This then becomes awkward when the reader checks to see if a passage is cited, only to discover that it isn’t. (An example: Barry describes a quick encounter between William Henry Welch and Rufus Cole on page 188, where a bellboy scolds Welch for smoking a cigar. I’m curious about how Barry knows this, flip to his “endnotes,” but no citation!)

The second practice, which I think is much more dangerous, is the lack of women in this tale. Barry structures his tale by focusing on the achievements of those he deems medical heroes – the Spanish flu epidemic is “a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and of how one changes the way one thinks” (pg. 5). The main issue here is that, for Barry, all of these medical heroes are men. While he does include a few women by name, such as Anna Williams and Jane Delano, their presence is marginal, an admission of Barry himself when he praises the “men and some very few women” who helped end the epidemic (pg. 5). First, nurses played a vital role during the epidemic as they attempted to prevent the spread of influenza and help hopeless victims die in peace, to the point where “nurses were literally being kidnapped” by families too desperate to let them leave (pg. 276-277). James Jackson, a Red Cross division director, even states that the most important prevention tactic is nurses caring in victims’ homes (pg. 316). But, more importantly, Barry’s omission of women from the larger narrative contributes to increasing the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Through the absence of positive female scientist role models in his book, Barry indirectly increases the “psychological sense of belonging that female students so often lack when they enter STEM environments.” With this lack of representation and acknowledgement of nurses as a class of medical heroes, women are told that their contributions to science don’t matter as much. Even though Barry repeats again and again how nurses are “needed desperately,” and even though women continue to make important contributions to science today, their story takes a back seat to male scientists (pg. 329).

mathAn unhelpful strategy, via SMBC.

I must admit that reading this book was a frustrating experience, particularly due to the issue of gender (I don’t care that Anna Williams never married!), but now what to do with these thoughts? I think that approaching the text from this angle will help us as a class to hone in on what should be a significant matter as we develop our programming: accessibility. Who is our audience, and how can we make our programming available to everyone in that group? How do we encourage more people — regardless of level of education, and especially women and others typically underrepresented in STEM fields — to engage with history and science? Moving forward, I look forward to exploring how we can make this topic accessible, welcoming, and non-intimidating while also being meaningful, useful, and relevant.

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One thought on “The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

  1. You do a great job here zeroing in on two key issues for you. I too thought it interesting that he was so interested in the maritial status of all his researcher “heroes.” Many of the men he studies are investigated too for their single status, but in ways quite differently than Williams!

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