Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Written by Laura Spinney
Review by Douglas Kemp

With the recent emergence of a particularly nasty strain of a flu virus, ostensibly from Australia, causing immense discomfort to many sufferers, this is an apposite time for a book on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.  Spanish flu did not originate in Spain; no one is absolutely sure where, but it seems probable that it came from China, the United States or France, amongst the deployed troops. While the Great War did not create the flu, it provided ideal conditions for its dissemination. Global figures for those who died in the flu are unknown – but it certainly killed more than died in the First World War and possibly the Second War, combined. A truly global disease, with only isolated pockets fortunate to escape the worst of its depredations – although this did include the substantial landmass of Australia.

Some parts of the narrative seem to be just fillers and are only tangentially related to the account. The most interesting elements are the attempts to understand the flu and how it jumps from species, in particular birds and pigs, to man, and why it is that some strains, such as that of 1918, which was the worst one yet, are much more serious than others. An absorbing and well-written book.