Pale Rider – Laura Spinney


The Spanish Flu, which raged across the world as a pandemic from 1918-1920, infected one out of three people IN THE WORLD (500 million out of 1.5 billion).  It killed anywhere from 10-20% of the people it infected, so somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died.  If the upper range is correct, it killed more people than World War I and World War II combined.  Yet most people know very little about it, and when the catastrophes and violence of the twentieth century are discussed, rarely is the Spanish Flu mentioned alongside the wars and the Holocaust.

The reasons for its almost-forgotten place in history are that it took place just as World War I was ending, and it killed far more people in the developing world than it did in Europe or North America.  That said, it had an enormous effect on the war (at times the war actually stalled because there weren’t enough healthy soldiers on either side to prosecute it, China sent workers to the Allies in Europe as its contribution to the war effort and it’s possible that they brought the flu with them, the conditions in the trenches were perfect for spreading the disease) and may have even affected the peace that was negotiated (Woodrow Wilson – of all the world leaders, the one who most wanted to take it easy on Germany – became sick at the negotiations and ended up playing a far smaller role than he otherwise would have (and possibly had his first of several strokes that eventually incapacitated him) – this led to a more draconian agreement with Germany which in turn planted the seeds for Hitler’s eventual rise).

The ripple effects of the pandemic are hard to even fathom.  The flu had a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ consequence whereby it killed off millions of the sick and weak all over the world.  Even more, it killed far more men than women, with the exception of pregnant women who were twice as likely to die if they contracted it than non-pregnant women.  For pregnant women who survived, they were likely to have children who were smaller and sicklier throughout their lives, which had an effect on the type of men who fought in World War II.  Just as Britain and France had a lost generation of men because of World War I, many other countries in the world had a lost generation of men because of the flu.

The reason it was called the Spanish Flu had nothing to do with its origins.  Its origins are unclear – it may have started in Kansas or it may have started in China.  No one knows for sure.  The one place they know it DIDN’T start was Spain.  The likely reason it’s called the Spanish Flu is that Spain was neutral during the war and thus didn’t have a censored press (as the Allies did).  Consequently, its press reported on the outbreak of the flu in the country and those reports went throughout Europe and the world.  Since France and Britain didn’t report on their respective cases, people came to associate the flu with Spain and the name stuck.  Spain actually got a bum rap (for all eternity, essentially).

One of the reasons the flu was so deadly was that the medical communities in the world weren’t really familiar with viruses.  They understood germs and bacteria, but didn’t have a handle on viruses and their cause.  Consequently, they tried to treat the disease as a bacterial infection and obviously had little success.  The fact that it was viral means that even today it would cause big problems if it somehow reappeared.  Interestingly – or perhaps worryingly – scientists were able to recreate the bug in 2005 and now have it under lock and key.  Hard to know what would happen if it were somehow released, and even harder to understand how that very scenario hasn’t been made into a Dwayne Johnson movie.

This book – as you can probably tell – was very informative.  I don’t know that I’d classify it as a page-turner as there were parts that were a little dry.  For information on all the ancillary effects of the flu, however, it’s hard to beat.  If you like this type of thing, the book’s for you.  If you have a limited interest, this review and perhaps a few articles online may be good enough.

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