Laura Spinney's Pale RiderIt’s become a stan­dard bit of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry triv­ia that as ter­ri­ble as the First World War was, the 1918 flu pan­dem­ic coin­cid­ing with the armistice killed more than the con­flict itself.

Now, an espe­cial­ly pedan­tic per­son might want to argue that WWI real­ly was the begin­ning of the ‘Sec­ond Thir­ty Years War’.

They might treat as book­ends both world wars — rop­ing togeth­er all bat­tle­field deaths, all civil­ian bomb­ings, every atroc­i­ty and geno­cide, every pre­ventable famine and epidemic.

And put togeth­er as a sin­gle his­tor­i­cal event, they would claim, all the mis­ery spring­ing from human mal­ice between 1914 to 1945 result­ed in up to one hun­dred mil­lion deaths dur­ing those three decades.

But, as British sci­ence jour­nal­ist Lau­ra Spin­ney relates in her lat­est book Pale Rid­er, the pan­dem­ic known in its time as the Span­ish Flu (but def­i­nite­ly not orig­i­nat­ing in Spain) may have killed as many peo­ple in three years as humankind did dur­ing thir­ty years of war, infect­ing one out of every three peo­ple on the earth while killing one in twen­ty of the glob­al population.

With­in a tidy 295 pages, Spin­ney asks (then attempts to answer) the ques­tion, “How did we allow our­selves to for­get a tragedy of such enor­mi­ty?”

Spin­ney’s tech­nique for han­dling the mate­r­i­al is in itself remark­able as she fast-for­wards and rewinds, switch­es in scale from micro to macro, delv­ing into how virus­es were first seen under elec­tron micro­scopes, explain­ing what the let­ters and num­bers like H1N1 sig­ni­fy in how the flu func­tions, then zoom­ing out to the path of dis­ease across con­ti­nents and its effects on soci­eties along the way.

It’s in the third chap­ter where she most impres­sive­ly bal­ances the scales of per­son­al and glob­al, pro­vid­ing a seem­ing­ly end­less series of anec­dotes of the Span­ish Flu’s pro­gres­sion as it inter­sects with peo­ple’s lives from Chi­na to Brazil to Alas­ka, and you feel how it mat­ters to each person.

It’s the equiv­a­lent of the Sep­tem­ber 11th attacks, Chal­lenger explo­sion or JFK’s assas­si­na­tion, except it was a tragedy expe­ri­enced instead of received electronically.

The root of influen­za in Ital­ian is exact­ly as it sounds, ref­er­enc­ing the influ­ence of unseen pow­ers on human affairs. But Spin­ney man­ages to also show the reverse: how humans influ­enced the spread and rapa­cious­ness of the disease.

Most intrigu­ing­ly, Spin­ney explores the idea that by putting this 1917 ver­sion of influen­za into the caul­dron of hell that the trench­es of the West­ern Front were, it nat­u­ral­ly devel­oped into the most vir­u­lent and apoc­a­lyp­tic ver­sion of itself possible.

An offi­cer dis­in­clined to take a sol­dier off the front lines for a lit­tle fever would quick­ly change his mind when con­front­ed with a sol­dier cough­ing up pints of pus and limbs turn­ing black. That may have been the strain that got back to the gen­er­al population.

In the end, the only notice­able fail­ing of Spin­ney’s book is that she men­tions ear­ly on how the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple died out­side of Europe and North Amer­i­ca — more than eigh­teen mil­lion peo­ple in India alone — yet she devotes rel­a­tive­ly few pages to describ­ing the impact the dis­ease had on those places.

She does spend some time out­side of her buy­ing audi­ence’s world, and what­ev­er rel­a­tive dearth of cov­er­age may be due to the lim­it­ed sources Spin­ney has avail­able to her as a non-poly­glot, non-spe­cial­ist. But if you’re going to men­tion how more peo­ple died in India than “The War to End All Wars”, there’s an expec­ta­tion you’re going to find a way to get a bit more spe­cif­ic about the flu’s effects there than, by my count, some small men­tions across six or sev­en pages.

Nev­er­the­less, Spin­ney has man­aged to research and write a con­cise but com­pre­hen­sive work deserv­ing to be part of your pri­vate library if you enjoy his­to­ry or epi­demi­ol­o­gy what­so­ev­er. It may even get you look­ing for more region-spe­cif­ic books the on pan­dem­ic to delve deep­er into what she covered.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it may also cause you break out into a cold sweat when you remem­ber Repub­li­cans are look­ing to cut $1.2 bil­lion from the bud­get of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion next fis­cal year.

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