Sunday, October 30, 2011

Flu: A Social History of Influenza

Flu: A Social History of Influenza wasn't what I expected. The 1918 flu epidemic severely attacked Philadelphia (it was quite possibly the US city most affected by the flu), and killed my maternal grandmother's younger sister and both of my paternal grandmother's parents. Regina was buried in her First Communion dress after the last funeral held in the parish before funerals were banned as a public health measure, and Grandmom and her brother, who had grown up in privilege, were put in an orphanage by two aunts who stole their inherence. Pandemic flu is part of my family history, and even though I wasn't born for another 50 years, probably affected my life and even my experience (my paternal grandparents wouldn't even have met if my great-grandparents hadn't died), and when I bought Flu: A Social History of Influenza, I expect to discuss the societal impact of past and potential future flu pandemics. It touched on them, and on the science of flu, but there was nothing that I hadn't read in John Barry's and Gina Kolata's books on the 1918 epidemic.

Quinn does a good job, though, of tracing the history of influenza from the first well-described outbreak during the Renaissance through the modern day. I was particularly interested in the discussion of 18th and 19th Century outbreaks. Although doctors had little medicine effective against the flu, they were surprisingly sophisticated in their descriptions of the disease and had an idea of contagion. Other than that, there was very little in Flu that I didn't already know. It's well-written and I enjoyed reading it, but I probably would have liked it better as an introduction to the subject than as the 5th or so book I've read about it.

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