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Book Review


Susan Kingsley Kent. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919, A Brief History with Documents, Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2013. Pp vii+ 125 (paper).


     The title of Susan Kingsley Kent's recent addition to The Bedford Series in History in Culture, is rather misleading in that "brief history" is limited to twenty four pages, leaving this reader expectant and slightly disappointed in both the depth and breadth of coverage. Additional tabular representation of narrative data would be helpful to provide both review and reference points for the reader. With the commonality of gorgeous ArcGIS derived maps, the first and second waves of viral spread should have been visually represented much more clearly. Since the book would ideally awaken us from the "historical amnesia" that seems to have surprisingly "settled in and lasted so long," expanded sections on what we have learned about and from the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 would be most welcomed, especially in light of the 2009 HIN1 pandemic.

     The book does meet the intended goal of allowing readers to "study the past as historians do" and the collection of documents is excellent. The documents are well organized into logical subsections (The Nature and Experience of the Disease, Transmission and Mortality, Treatment Responses, Consequences and Repercussions of the Pandemic) and each document is systematically and effectively introduced to provide appropriate context for the reader. The selection works to provide a global perspective. When Kent more intentionally entangled the documents into the brief history the introduction itself became a more humanized story.

     The author puts forward an interesting hypothesis to explain the uncharacteristic number of deaths of those individuals in the medical primes of their lives (fifteen to forty-five years of age). She also points to a potential link between the global influenza outbreak and the ascent to power of Adolf Hitler, in that the "epidemic may well have had a significant effect on the outcome of the peace settlement following World War I." The strength of the book lies in drawing conclusions from evidence but also in allowing some room for creative deduction to fuel intellectual curiosities.

     It seems negligent at best to not expose students of both science and history to this catastrophic "pandemic that killed more people worldwide than died in World War I." Kent wastes no words in her interpretation of what might have happened. "Science had failed; medicine had failed; governments had failed—and what were people supposed to do with that nasty bit of information?" Share it with your students now, of course. The author assumes a reasonable background in early 20th century world history. The book is short enough to be read along with a standard introductory biology text and lends itself beautifully to a ramped up discussion of the adaptive immune response, virology (contrasted with bacteriology), vaccines (how they work, design, and production), treatments, the Hippocratic oath and human resilience.

Natalie Coe is an associate professor of Biology at Green Mountain College. Her primary research interest is in understanding natural mechanisms of disease resistant in Eastern deciduous forest ecosystems. She teaches a range of courses focused on molecular and cellular biology including Conservation Medicine and Disease and Disorders: Humans, History and Hope. She can be reached at


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