For most of the people of the world, the year 1918 was one of great challenge and hardship; for much of Europe, the implements of war and the men and boys who wielded them cut a swatch of destruction and death across an entire continent. Among these weapons was one of a relatively new nature- the chemical weapon. With chemical weapons came the horrific ability to kill thousands, if not millions, of people in one fell swoop.
In the midst of such readily available death, millions of people across the United States and other parts of the world began to succumb to illnesses that were originally attributed, variably, to the work of German spies who infiltrated the food and water supplies of the nation, industrial sabotage, and classic works of terrorism. The reality would eventually be discovered as something much worse- an influenza epidemic that was an equal opportunity killer of men, women and children, by some estimates, as many as 18 to 20 million individuals, and just as quickly as it came to the world, it also faded away (Kolata).
In its wake, many questions were left behind as to the nature of the epidemic, what its long term implications would be, and whether or not it would come back again, perhaps with a worse vengeance than before. In this research, a pivotal work on this subject, The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It, written by author Gina Kolata will be discussed and reviewed, not only to better appreciate this book, but also to gain a better understanding of the horrific nature of the problems that form the plot of the book itself. Plot Overview
An accurate appreciation of Kolata’s book first requires a brief review of the plot of the book. To properly absorb the plot, one needs to let their imagination wander back to the America of 1918; the nation was in the ending stages of a bloody World War that brought modern civilization to the brink of extinction. On the home front, Americans who were not overseas engaged in actual military service did their part to aid the domestic war effort via war bond sales drives, working in factories which produced the equipment needed to fight a major war, and the like.
As was discussed in the Introduction to this research, there was always a high level of vigilance against invasion of the American homeland by foreign enemies, with Germans being especially suspect due to their instigation of the war itself. For this reason, when Americans began growing ill and dying for no apparent reason, the efforts of foreign enemies immediately were assumed to be the cause. The reality was more frightening, however.
All in all, the influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people than the combat of World War I and did not restrict itself to combatants in uniform; rather, those who had the bad fortune to be human beings were all at risk to be claimed by the virus. This was something which Americans were unprepared for in every sense of the word, as the mindset of the common people was aimed at that time toward the eventual end of the war, and with it a return to normalcy and the ceasing of death, mourning, and the loss of loved ones.
Just like the war itself, in the years following the epidemic, those who lived through it were reluctant to discuss it, as if keeping quiet about it would somehow prevent it from rearing its ugly head ever again (Kolata). In fact, not even the deadly AIDS virus would even come close to claiming as many lives as would the 1918 influenza epidemic. With such destruction as a reference point, the deeper meanings of Kolata’s book can be discussed. Major Points of the Book Part historical record, part scientific investigation, part human interest story, this book has several major points that are important to understand.
Perhaps the most important point of the overall work is the idea that for all of the progress that humans have made in science in technology, and for all of the feelings that people are superior and in control of their environment, there are elements of nature that are not fully understood, and definitely not controlled. In addition, the book in some ways suggests that the tendency to look at the distant past as the “good old days”, with soft edges and nostalgia, is merely a myth. For example, the point was made earlier that Kolata stated in her work that after the 1918 epidemic, many people chose not to discuss the matter.
If serious journalists like Kolata did not take the time or have the discipline to present provable facts about this epidemic, perhaps the hard cold truth about it would never have been revealed to the people of today, and the myth of the “good old days” would be able to survive. While it is hard to accept that there were horrific conditions in the past, especially those that could very well repeat themselves in the present or the future, it is important to accept this reality, for it is this type of blunt information that provides the opportunity for the modern person to possibly prepare themselves for the worst.
In an increasingly complicated and hazardous world, this level of preparedness is extremely important. Major Themes of the Book On the surface, this work would easily stand on its own as a solid work of historic and biological research; however, beneath the surface, Kolata’s book has several additional major themes as well which are important to examine and discuss: • MAN VERSUS NATURE- Within this story is a theme that repeats itself over and over; that of the battle of human beings against the obstacles that nature throws out at them.
In reading this work, one has to keep in mind of course that the facts of the story took place nearly a century ago, at a time when medical science was not as advanced as it is today, nor was there as much factual information available about the nature of germs, viruses and contagious diseases. This being said, however, it is fair to say, given the existence of influenza strains that even today cannot be fought with any of today’s medical advances, the struggle of man to try to overcome an infectious disease in 1918 is still as relevant today.
Beyond influenza, in the 21st century, people struggle with the effects of AIDS and other such contagious illnesses for which there is no vaccine or cure. Therefore, today’s reader of Kolata’s book is especially captivated because the story is not as much about something which only affected the people of generations gone by, but is also in some ways an alert to the reader that the same types of conditions can, and do, manifest themselves in the present day.
• WAR AND DEATH- The action of this work takes place during a time when Americans, and indeed others around the world, found themselves physically, emotionally and financially drained by the war which had defined their lives for nearly four awful years. With that war came the everyday possibility of the news of the death of a loved one who was fighting for their given nation, often in a land far away from the place that they called home. As if this was not difficult enough, the influenza virus that came about like an invisible enemy also claimed more than its share of lives; perhaps more tragically, it could not be fought in any way.
• THE EVOLUTION OF SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION- Along with the historical information that Kolata includes about the influenza epidemic of 1918, she also discusses how scientists attempted to find the origins of the virus in an effort to contain and ultimately eradicate it. In this respect, the work also takes on the spirit of an investigative report. Critique/Compliment of the Book As with any book, The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It has elements that can be criticized, and there are also which can be complimented, making it possible to present a balanced review of the book itself.
From a critical point of view, Kolata does stray from being cautionary to almost a level of trying to instigate unnecessary fear in the reader. It is true that the horrible toll that the 1918 epidemic took in terms of casualties is so unnaturally high that no one would debate that it qualifies as one of the worst rash of fatalities that ever took place, and it is possible that such an epidemic could erupt without warning, one should not lock themselves away in some unnatural fear that they will fall victim to the next epidemic, if one in fact comes.
Biologically, human beings do build up resistance to certain germs over time through evolutionary factors, which needs to also be taken into account. In praise of The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It, the book is a skillful blend of history, biology, human interest and analysis. This not just a book that a student of biology or history would find interesting; it is also a story of the lives of real people that anyone could find worthwhile to read. Conclusion
Nature plays no favorites- it harms the young and old, weak and strong alike. This point has never been clearer than in Gina Kolata’s work, which has been the subject of this research. From this book review, in conclusion, several very valuable pieces of information can be extracted: first, that for all of the ways to control nature, ultimately, there are uncontrollable forces which strike at will and flee just as quickly. Second, that enemies can come in all forms, whether in uniforms and carrying guns or invisibly through the air.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, as Kolata alluded to in her book, those who refuse to learn from the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Therefore, keeping Kolata’s book in mind, everyone should make an effort to stop and smell the proverbial roses before it is too late. Works Cited Kolata, Gina. The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It. New York: Touchstone Books (1999).