The Devil’s Flu

Devil's Flu coverThe Devil’s Flu:  The World’s Deadliest Influenza Hunt for the Virus that Caused It.

Pete Davis

Holt and Co.  2000.  306 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by Davis:  none.

This book is not a solid treatment of the 1918 pandemic.  If you are looking for something for a non-medical reader the following would better:  John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza (which I have read:  outstanding) and Flu by Gina Kolata (not read yet, but definitely going on the TBR list).

Davis’ book reads like a long magazine article — chock full of assertions that immediately raised my hackles:  could Chinese labourers who flooded the Western Front during WW1 have brought the plague with them?  Davis also refers to the flu as the “Purple Death” which I have never heard it called.  Not saying he is wrong — but with no authority cited it’s hard to trust Davis’ statements.  The book jumps back and forth between 1918, the 1997 Hong Kong bird flu outbreak and modern day efforts to trace the 1918 virus’ origins.  He spends an inordinate amount of space on a failed mission to exhume the bodies of 1918 victims who were buried above the Norwegian Arctic circle.  This effort, led by Canadian geographer Kirsty Duncan (who later became a member of the Canadian Parliament), comes in for Davis’ harshest criticism.  Duncan’s team screwed up because they spent millions of dollars and it turns out the poor victims had not even been buried in the permafrost — hence no good samples.  Duncan was not forthcoming with the press about the flop and Davis seems to use this book to get back at her.  One gets the sense he was annoyed by wasting his time hanging around a little town in Norway without any exciting find.  The book has lots of filler in it — Davis’ research method appears to be tagging after various scientists and garnering interviews, but the overall effect of the book is untrustworthy due to the amount of time he spends savaging Duncan, his lack of footnotes or any extensive bibliography.  Not recommended.