Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from The Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History

Written by Catharine Arnold
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

As World War I was ending, influenza killed 20-50 million people worldwide. The H5N1 strain of the familiar virus attacked, seemingly preferred, healthy young people, destroying families, businesses, and communities, bringing major cities to their knees. Arnold’s exhaustively researched and illustrated study adds to the literature with scores of eyewitness reports from medical experts, flu victims and their families, traumatized children and anguished parents, undertakers, gravediggers, and civil servants and military officers facing a catastrophe beyond imagining. Included are testimonies of well-known survivors like Walt Disney, John Steinbeck, FDR, and Kaiser Wilhelm. Here is the best and worst of humanity: gross profiteering and quiet heroism, official denials and desperate remedies.

Arnold’s fluid prose includes moving vignettes showing how the epidemic impacted people from the Arctic to Africa, India to World War I field hospitals. Covering a global phenomenon poses organizational challenges: some chapters are thematic; some focus on particular regions hit by the flu; some look at the timeline; others at modern efforts to prevent a return of the H5N1 infection that some estimate might create 188,000 to 337,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. This oral history is a sobering, readable account, compelling for a wide audience.