The Spanish Flu Epidemic and Its Influence on History

Written by Jaime Breitnauer
Review by Edward James

The influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, dwarfed the catastrophe of the First World War – except that it did not, at least in the history books, in literature and in folk memory.  Hopefully we are now done with world wars, but we are certainly not finished with influenza pandemics, so perhaps it is time to remember the Spanish flu.

This short book is strong on the scale and the human impact of the pandemic.  It was horrifying in the speed at which it spread and with which it killed. It was first recorded in America in May and came to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force.  There were three waves, as the virus mutated, the worst being the second which unusually struck at the young and fit, rather than the traditionally vulnerable groups.

The effect on history is difficult to assess.  As Brietnauer admits, it had surprisingly little impact compared with the Black Death: ‘while it has continued to be studied and analysed in niche virology circles, the collective memory seemed to shut it out.’  It may have hastened the end of the war, and it certainly forced governments to pay more attention to public health, but it vanished as quickly as it came, and there was little that could be learned because it was so little understood.  Today we can learn more from the event because we understand viruses much better, which is why it was so important to recover the virus from the Arctic permafrost, as the final chapter describes.