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The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

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“It was the first great collision between a natural force and modern science that included individuals who refused either to submit to that force or to simply call upon divine intervention to save themselves from it, individuals who instead were determined to confront this force directly, with a developing technology and with their minds,”

            -John Barry (2005)

“The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History”

“The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” is a book written by John Barry. The author is a well know historian who wrote other several books such as the award-winning “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927” and another book titled “How It Changed America”. Most critics have stated that his current book has truly captured the essence of the disease that almost killed the citizens of America. Barry (2005) had skillfully written the story in a panoramic style, giving his readers a visual imagination of the situation. The book had been quoted by many intellectuals and academics and received positive reviews showing their praise for the book:

Yet the story of the 1918 influenza virus is not simply one of havoc, death, and desolation, of a society fighting a war against nature superimposed on a war against another human society (Barry, 2005, Prologue).

It is also a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and of how one changes the way one thinks, of how amidst near-utter chaos a few men sought the coolness of contemplation, the utter calm that precedes not philosophizing but grim, determined action. (Barry, 2005, Prologue)

            The book “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” revolves around the story of the disease that was assumed to have first affected the sick farm animals which then affected the military forces in Kansas. The disease spread and mutated due to the soldiers who traveled in Europe. It spread transversely to the world with an unusual pace and intensity that it killed many people in twenty weeks, which is more than the death produced by AIDS in twenty years. The victims of this disease experienced bleeding of ears and nose. They turned blue due to the lack of enough oxygen going into the lungs. Each of the victims suffered aching of bones as if each of those bones were being wrecked (Barry, 2005).

In the United States, dead bodies were sacked and placed into piles on trucks. The number of the dead people was seven times more than the first attack in the First World War. The epidemic spread like wild fire causing many people to panic and some were left helpless. There were uncontrollable deaths and devastated families were abandoned because of the death of their loved ones.

            The book recalls the haunting period of history through his intelligently clustered collection of correspondences, actions, stories and pieces of writing from the past and the present that evidently illustrates everything that had taken place. Barry (2005) described in the book the account of the epidemic and how it greatly affected the whole country in its society and culture that have eventually lead to discoveries. The author also emphasizes two main topics in his book which are the Great War and the conflict among the virus and scientist (Barry, 2005).

            The influenza epidemic in 1918 could be compared to any other disaster that has invaded the country. Out of the 1.8 million people living in the time of the plague, there were 100 million people were eradicated due to the deadly influenza. The cruel realty of the plague challenged the human race and raised the concern of the public in terms of protecting their health and well being. The society then sustained the continuous threats that almost eradicated the whole human race from extinction. In comparison to the 105 million citizens of the United States there had been an estimated number of 675,000 people dead caused by the epidemic (Barry, 2005).

            John Barry argued that the influenza outbreak in 1918 was not about the modern medicine or science for the reason that practitioners during that time had an in-depth understanding of the concept of the disease and how dangerous or deadly it could be. The cure was known for the medical practitioners. The information regarding the new medical breakthroughs provided adequate information and guidelines concerning the flu attack which was not different from the medical discoveries many years ago. Instead of discussing the epidemic, the book tackles more about the events happening within the private and public institutions in the epidemic of 1918 (Barry, 2005).

            The media is the first major intuition that John Barry addressed in the books as one of the key problems in the time of the epidemic. There was a lack of communication in the accounts and updates of the situation. Slow paced news from the main sources held others from knowing about the current situation of different people in the United States. The lack of communication and proper information lead to the continuous spread of disease (Barry, 2005).

            In the book, John Barry narrated the main demands of the then President Woodrow Wilson. The president’s main priority was not the nation, but the campaign of the war. The president neglected his duties towards the nation as well as his responsibilities in addressing the concerns of the people. The media was also somehow controlled by the government, making the news about the war very much available while overlooking the news about the spreading disease (Barry, 2005).

Utilitarian and Deontology in relation with the book:

            The book provides many actions within the fields of medicine and politics that could be seen and analyzed from a Utilitarian and Deontology theories. The book also describes situations wherein people can observe the decision making of leaders as well as their choices of action towards addressing the problem/s.

            One very evident example is President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to take the United States into War. The concept of the war is simple; it is to: protect the interest of the whole nation and defend the country from the outside forces. It was a decision he had to make—if he should endanger his nation or endanger a few to defend the whole nation. Soldiers were trained to fight for their country. Many of them waited for this time to finally be in the action of doing what they are trained to do. The choice of President Woodrow Wilson’s willingness to send his soldiers to the field and be prepared that there would be many dead American soldiers after the war and the possible psychological effects it will bring to the American Society.

            In the deontological point of view, the President intended to protect his people and his country; it was his main duty as an appointed president. The nation asked him to give his citizens security, welfare needs, autonomy, and the likes. The president’s duty to his people must all—if not, almost all of his duties he must accomplish in order to have a great leadership and deference from the government and its citizens. However, looking at the continuous spread of the disease, actions from the side of the government were not fully witnessed.

As mentioned in the book, there was the prevention of news entering the nation. The continuous spread of the illness was not known to the people making them ignorant about the disease that would kill all the people in the United States. The threats to their lives were not made known to them which have resulted in the deaths many Americans. If there were immediate information given to the American Nation, some ways of preventing the spread of the disease could have been made. The disregard of the government and the priority of the President towards the war abandoned the much more important issue which is the spread of disease.

The decision made by the President was due to the call of his duty. He thought that soldiers that were trained to be in the war should be the ones sacrificed to fight for the country and to protect its security. However, the new spread of disease was not thought of leading to another consequence that the government of Wilson was not prepared to face. If seen in another point of view, the news regarding the disease spreading was prevented from reaching the public in order to protect the reputation of the government—that it should be the institution that protects and prioritizes its people. During that time, the medical world was not as prepared in this kind of epidemic. With no medicine given to its citizens, the government decided to hide the issue so as not to induce panic. However, the disease was widely spreading, making it unavoidable for anyone.

From the ethical point of view of utilitarianism, the actions of President Woodrow Wilson were based on the law of the United States. It is within the constitution that the President must be able to act and decide when the country is in threat or in time of disaster. Wilson, as the President, only acted as he was assigned through the laws. His action of immediate war and instant dispersion of the soldiers in the war was the most likely action he could have done. In the realist point of view, defending and acting against a threat is the immediate action of any realist President such that of Woodrow Wilson.

            Looking at another issue raised by John Barry, he stated that the medical department of the United States has long known the cure for the disease that affected the United States however, it took the department too long to provide the people of their needs the medical assistance that they needed in order to survive the plague. The whole countries waited 24 long weeks in order to fully eradicated and exterminate the virus that has killed millions of people in the world.

 In the deontological point of view, the medical team that is handling the situation has done great actions in order to fully heal the people sick with influenza. They have researched and did drastic studies in order to fully know the ideal medicine for the deadly disease. Although they have done these actions, the lengthy time that they have spend to make the medicine perfect sacrificed a lot of people. The lives of people that did not immediately have the medicine became victims of the plague.

The effects of the decision made by the medical team in creating an immediate solution of the disease have created a great impact in the medical world. It did not only save the human beings from being totally eradicated, but it had also created new inventions that helped the current generation to prevent and cure the disease. This is the duty of science—to be used for enhancement and protection of human life. Science was utilized by doctors to create the medicine to develop a cure for the plague. However, it took many lives before the whole nation became normal and disease-free. The long time it took to finally create a solution to the problem needed the sacrifice of many people—not only a few, but millions, before the cure finally was discovered. The medical department has chosen to let go of those millions of people for the future of the human life.

            In the utilitarian view point, the action made by the medical department was just. It was their duty to create the cure for the disease. They chose to bring upon such action because it was all for the human good and for the future, just like the deontologist point of view. However, the individual desires of the doctors, scientists or citizens were not addressed. This is because the values that must be given attention should be for the betterment of the many.

            In conclusion, the whole book has presented moral dilemmas that the main actors in the book had to take in order to address the problem. These decisions that they needed to take have made a big impact in their time, as well as the current society. Morality became one of the major factors most of the characters needed to take in order to realize the exact need of the nation.

 The decision of President Woodrow Wilson of employing thousands of soldiers for the war has created great consequences for the United States. While the country had shown power in the international community, it had created negative effects in the American Society which led to the transmission of the disease. The prevention of the information regarding the disease resulted in a much larger impact in the society for it had made the nation innocent of what possible consequences it could bring to the whole human race. The decision of the government to focus on the war instead of the betterment of the whole country reflected that it wanted to have a better international reputation. Instead of satisfying the people who gave the government the power to govern, it viewed the war as the most important problem facing the country.

On the other hand, the medical department has created a magnificent invention which kept the whole human race safe from the dangers of influenza. The discovery protected the whole Unites States, the world, and the next generations. Although many lives were sacrificed in order to find the cure, the discovery of the cure was able to stop the possible extinction of the human race.


Barry, J. (2005). “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. New York: Viking Penguin.

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