The Story of the Great Influenza

Pandemic of 1918 and the

Search for the Virus That Caused It

By Gina Kolata

Farrar Straus Giroux. 330 pp. $25

Reviewed by Beryl Lieff Benderly

What is the deadliest epidemic in the history of the world? Ask anyone younger than late middle age, and they'll probably say the Black Death or possibly AIDS. Ask anyone older and, from personal recollection or family legend, they're likely to know the right answer: the great 1918 influenza outbreak, called at the time the Spanish flu. In a space of mere months, scores of millions of people all over the world, the great majority of them young adults in the prime of their lives, succumbed in agony in a matter of days or weeks. The true death toll is unknown but may well have topped 100 million.

Many times more than that caught the disease but survived. My grandmother was one of the latter, a young wife and mother in her late twenties. My mother, who could not possibly have remembered the illness, being herself a baby at the time, spoke of it rarely but with reverence. "Mama almost died," she'd say, repeating what she'd heard in childhood and leaving the unknowable alternate fate of our family a matter of fearsome conjecture.

So why is it that this terrible scourge has essentially disappeared from our cultural consciousness? The Black Death is burned into Euro-American memory, and AIDS is the modern metaphor for pestilence. But a plague that raced through our country (and a great many others) with the speed and relentlessness of an Apocalyptic horseman (specifically, the "Pale Horse" with "Pale Rider" of Katherine Anne Porter's account of her own close call) is hardly known to the survivors' descendants. After wracking my brain, I could dredge up, apart from a documentary or two, only one not-very-mass-media reference: Long-time "Masterpiece Theater" fans will remember that Hazel Bellamy bowed out of "Upstairs Downstairs" because of the flu.

The reason for this puzzling amnesia is one of several troubling questions that New York Times reporter Gina Kolata tries but fails to answer in this well-written but ultimately unsatisfying book. Others are where the Spanish flu came from (certainly not Spain), what caused it, why it was so virulent, and why it disappeared. In perhaps the oddest twist of all, this most ferocious of contagions simply went away of its own accord, never (or, at least, not yet) to be seen again.

Kolata's inability to answer these questions does not, however, reflect any lack of industry or skill. She commands the intelligent curiosity, well-honed reporting techniques and smooth prose style of a top science reporter, which she has been for many years. It's just that the answers seem too deep for her to grapple to the surface with the means at hand.

Scientists do not yet know the answer to three of the major questions. They have identified the virus but neither its origin nor what made it at once a horrific killer and the century's greatest virological vanishing act. And the question of its cultural disappearance gets only cursory discussion.

But you don't need a degree in virology to imagine what would happen should the infection reappear. Anyone who has antibodies from exposure at the epidemic's height is by definition over 80 years old. President Gerald Ford's swine flu fiasco -- ably recounted in the book -- began as a response to that fear. So it's easy to feel the urgency of the small group of researchers -- several of whom Kolata engagingly profiles -- who are actively trying to figure out the disease in hopes of preparing a vaccine to forestall that dread eventuality.

Kolata does a fine job of describing the scientific problems these researchers are tackling and the qualities of personality and quirks of personal history that brought them to the quest. For my taste, the book places a bit too much emphasis on this kind of storytelling. Not personally a particular fan of the true-life-drama school of science writing, I appreciated that the discussion of the scientific issues -- my own preferred emphasis in popular science books -- is clearly, intelligently and interestingly presented. And anyone who likes any kind of science writing at all will enjoy the exciting description of the techniques employed to analyze the merest viral fragments and of how, in the hands of devoted experts, they finally revealed the identity of the viral culprit. For Washington readers, there's the pleasing bonus that these people are our usual sort of unsung heroes, civil servants showing the kind of knowledge, dedication and ingenuity for which our town's countless GS-whatevers are so underappreciated beyond the Beltway.

So here we have one of history's great mysteries -- the nature of the flu and its causative agent -- wrapped in one tantalizing cultural enigma: Why is this relatively recent scourge so dimly remembered? Kolata does a useful service in recalling it to our attention, despite the frustration that she can't tell us more. Given the current state of knowledge, though, that's hardly her fault.

Washington writer Beryl Lieff Benderly serves on the board of the National Association of Science Writers.