As a media fellow at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Maryn McKenna, author of “Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service” (Free Press, 2004), participated in the conference, “The Next Big Health Crisis—And How to Cover It.” After the conference, Nieman Reports asked her to compile a list of important books related to the coverage of influenza—both the current threat of avian flu and the possibility of pandemic flu. We are grateful to her for doing so—and for sharing her experiences in using these resources to assist her in reporting the many stories she’s written about these topics. “It helps to assemble a reference bookshelf,” McKenna says. “I have been writing about pandemic and avian flu since 1997, and here are some of the works I keep on my shelf. Some of these books are out of print. To hunt down copies, try and”

Basic Reference Books

“Influenza: The Last Great Plague: An unfinished story of discovery,” W.I.B. Beveridge (Prodist, 1977). This book presents an accessible overview of influenza virology and pandemic history, written by a distinguished British scientist in the lean years when no one other than virologists cared about flu. I keep the next-to-last line above my desk: “Influenza … is a global plague: A spark in a remote corner of the world could start a fire that scorches us all.”

“Influenza,” Edwin D. Kilbourne (Plenum Medical Book Co., 1987). Encyclopedic but a tough read for those without a science background, written by one of the premier flu scientists in the United States.

“Influenza Rapid Reference,” Jan Wilschut and Janet E. McElhaney (Mosby, 2006). Aimed at clinicians and sized for the pocket of a doctor’s coat, this paperback covers a wide range of topics from natural history to treatment options to health economics. It is compact and very up-to-date, with clear graphics and tables.

Accounts of the 1918 Pandemic

“The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” John M. Barry (Viking, 2004). Barry’s thorough history was released at a perfectly judged moment—President George W. Bush famously took it to RELATED ARTICLE
Excerpts from “The Great Influenza”
– John M. Barry
his Texas ranch to read—and it has held the spotlight ever since. It is especially strong in its wide-ranging portrait of the havoc caused by the misnamed Spanish Flu and in its accounts of government inadequacy as the pandemic advanced.

“America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918,” Alfred W. Crosby (Cambridge University Press, 1989). Before Barry’s book, there was Crosby’s, whose seminal work (first published as “Epidemic and Peace” in 1976) explores American society’s decades-long refusal to remember or discuss the trauma of 1918.

Katherine Anne Porter’s story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (Harcourt Brace Modern Classics, 1936) and “They Came Like Swallows,” William Maxwell (Harper, 1937). These are two understated—and therefore all the more heartbreaking—lightly fictionalized autobiographical accounts of 1918. Porter’s description of her own illness—during which her Army-officer fiancé died of the flu—conveys the profound delirium that came with that flu’s high fevers. Maxwell’s account of a family shattered by a flu death is a fractal miniature of the pandemic’s painful aftermath.

“The Silent Enemy: Canada and the Deadly Flu of 1918,” Eileen Pettigrew (Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983) and “The 1918-1919 Pandemic of Influenza: The Urban Impact in the Western World,” Fred R. van Hartesveldt, editor (Edwin Mellin Press, 1993). Personal accounts of the 1918 flu outside the United States exist in library manuscript collections, but relatively few were widely published. Pettigrew’s journalistic account of 1918’s impact in urban and rural Canada is a glimpse of the suffering the rest of the world endured. Van Hartesveldt’s is a collection of essays by historians describing the epidemic in European, South American, and U.S. cities.

The Swine Flu in 1976

“The Epidemic That Never Was: Policy-Making & the Swine Flu Affair,” Richard E. Neustadt and Harvey Fineberg (Vintage, 1982) and “Pure Politics and Impure Science: The Swine Flu Affair,” Arthur M. Silverstein (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981). After an anomalous case of flu at an Army camp, federal scientists concluded a new pandemic might have begun. The mass immunization campaign launched to prevent it caused a set of illnesses unrelated to flu and a subsequent political crisis. These two analyses of the swine flu episode provide useful context for understanding federal decision-making around pandemic preparations.

The Search for the 1918 Virus

“Catching Cold: 1918’s Forgotten Tragedy and the Search for the Virus That Caused It,” Pete Davies (Michael Joseph, 1999), “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It,” Gina Kolata (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), and “Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a Killer Virus,” Kirsty Duncan (University of Toronto Press, 2003). The viral cause of the 1918 pandemic was a mystery until two groups of researchers who were outsiders to the tightly knit world of flu virology resolved to find and reassemble it. One succeeded. Davies and Kolata tell lively accounts of the competition and the achievements of the successful team; skip their overviews of basic science and pandemic history if you are reading other books on this list. The Duncan book, by the unsuccessful team’s leader, is a dispiriting glimpse into the internal politics of high-stakes science.

Avian Flu

“Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching,” Michael Greger (Lantern Books, 2006). One of the few flu books to comprehensively examine bird flu from the birds’ side, this new book by a senior official at the Humane Society of the United States is especially strong in its dissection of Asia’s burgeoning industrial agriculture. It includes a valuable bibliography and set of references—90 pages in length.

For Young Readers

“Deadly Invaders: Virus Outbreaks Around the World, from Marburg Fever to Avian Flu,” Denise Grady (Kingfisher, 2006). This young-adult book is mostly about Grady’s experience covering the 2005 outbreak of Marburg in Angola, but it includes a short chapter about avian and pandemic flu. The accessible language and relaxed voice make it a useful model for anyone writing about flu for “news for kids” pages.

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