Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Before the present-day COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seemed to be a largely forgotten historical footnote. It was overshadowed by its more explosive, if less lethal, co-event, World War I – the war that was fallaciously believed to hold the promise of ending all wars. Furthermore, Spanish Flu never achieved the mystique of the Black Death. In fact, among the fascinating questions this book examines is why such a world-changing event isn’t more diligently studied. Of course, these days there is a sort of grim desire to understand what happened in 1918 and what – if any – lessons can be learned.
[Which isn’t to suggest that that Influenza virus pandemic was perfectly analogous to the present Coronavirus pandemic. In 1918, science was still at a state in which there remained debate about whether the disease resulted from a bacterium or a virus, and — in some sense — it didn’t matter because they didn’t have good treatments for either. For COVID, we had accurate tests in short order, and will no doubt have a vaccine at some point in the coming months. That said, I’m not dismissive of COVID-19. As I understand it, COVID’s R-nought (reproductive ratio), and the fact that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission occur make the current pandemic serious business. Furthermore, while scientific understanding has increased radically, human psychology is surprisingly similar and some of the same conspiracy theories and wishful thinking that made things worse a hundred years ago may prove to do the same today.]
The strength of Spinney’s book is that it takes global perspective. It doesn’t fixate on the United States (where the 1918 Flu was first understood to its own, new disease) or Europe (where it was inexorably linked to the fighting, and got its fallacious name of “Spanish Flu.”) In addition to these locals, Spinney’s telling visits and revisits China (one of the alternative candidates for ground zero,) India (which suffered tremendous fatalities from the disease,) Brazil, and a number of other countries around the globe.
The book’s twenty-two chapters are arranged into eight parts. While these divisions are topically organized, emphasis is given to the stories being told and so said topics aren’t in one’s face but are, rather, background that is subtly presented in narrative form. Chronological consideration is tertiary. The penultimate part (Part VII) does explore the world in the wake of the Spanish Flu, but discussion of attempts to find the true index patient (a.k.a. patient zero) don’t take place until chapter 11 [Part V.] [To clarify, the acknowledged patient zero was a soldier at a US military base in the middle of America, but there are widely divergent thoughts about how long the disease might have been infecting people before that – masked either by the war or by the lack of data collection and reporting throughout the world. The only thing that is widely agreed upon is that the “Spanish Flu” didn’t originate in Spain.] I’m certainly fine with meandering on chronology in order to serve a more appealing narrative.
A lot of the subjects covered are interesting, but are what one would expect, e.g. what was it like to live in the midst of Spanish Flu. Therefore, I want to focus on a few topics that I found particularly interesting because they were illuminating, but weren’t necessarily what I anticipated. One set of topics addressed sheds light on just how different a time 1918 was. I suppose different people have different ideas about how modern the early 20th century was — relative to today. To me it was interesting to hear about church leaders calling upon people to attend services because there was an idea that the Flu was a result of god finding humanity’s “lack of faith disturbing.” [I quote Darth Vader, not this book’s author.] I’m sure there are priests and preachers saying the same these days, but I also suspect those voices are so far into the lunatic fringe as to not merit much attention, but not so in 1918 (and, thusly, many went to sit in high-density churches only to spread the flu more effectively than any virus could hope for.) Another interesting insight into the level of modernity was Spinney’s explanation of the fact that medicine, as we know it, had not yet risen to a favored spot above approaches like homeopathy and shamanism. Lest it sound like I’m engaging in the outhouse fallacy; I will say that people are falling in many of the same holes despite more advanced understanding of viruses – particularly as regards to people’s desire to impose order and purpose on a natural event.]
The other discussion that I found unexpected and revelatory was about the dearth of art and literature on the subject of the 1918 Flu. Spinney describes the effects of Spanish Flu on many major artists of the time, but goes on to discuss how few of those who survived the flu in 1918 brought it into their works. She does also discuss some of the works that did come about, as well.
I found this book fascinating from cover to cover. The fact that it covered so much ground geographically as well as topically was part of that intrigue. Learning what changes occurred in the wake of the 1918 Flu has certainly helped me consider what to expect in our future. The similarities and differences between then and now also surprised me. Just like today, there were a lot of wildly bizarre conspiracy theories from people who had to make sense of both the randomness of the Flu’s action and the fact that it put such a nasty a crimp in their lifestyle. It’s also interesting to consider some of the more intellectually stimulating theories – e.g. that part of the reason for the lethality of Spanish Flu is that in the theater of war, the virus didn’t benefit from the internal restraint usually shown (because people were dying so rapidly) and so mutations that favored a quick and harsh influence made gains. [For those who aren’t aware, it was the second wave of the Spanish Flu that was really nasty. The first wave was like seasonal flu for almost everyone, and by the third wave the virus didn’t have much of a reservoir of those without acquired immunity and so petered out relatively quickly.]
If you want to learn more about Spanish Flu, I’d highly recommend this book – particularly if you are interested in the global story and the after-effects of the disease.
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