Last year John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide, published his latest, The Great Influenza - The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. I just finished it. According to the White House it was one of three books G.W. Bush took with him to read on his hurricane shortened August vacation. I wonder if he did.
While scientists are now arguing in public about just how many people may die in the next pandemic coming to a neighborhood near you, I found the book fascinating for two reasons unrelated to the influenza virus itself and the untold millions (50? 100?) who died.
First was his opening description of the abysmal state of American medical education and practice in the mid and late 1800's and those who, by the time the pandemic occurred, made the best of American medical practice the equal of any in the world.
The second was the governmental and institutional response to the rapid spread of the disease and deaths. Given that the cause was unknown (most thought it was a bacteria) and no cure was available (there still isn't), maybe we should cut the elected officials, medical establishment, print media, government officials some slack. However the repeated poor coordination among governmental agencies, failure to heed professional warnings, and willingness to lie to the public during a time of crisis cost many citizens their lives. Does this sound familiar? There was a war on then too.
Turns out historian John Barry lives in New Orleans (Tulane & Xavier Universities). Seems like instead of having to research trouble, this time trouble came looking for him. You can read more about and by Mr. Barry at the excellent History News Network web site.
That individuals act badly in times of crisis should not surprise us. Fear and ignorance are not pretty, a bad combination. And since mankind is constantly turning over we can't count on individual experience for much. But institutions are different. They were created to express the best of our collective knowledge and wisdom. They were created to pass knowledge across the generations. That the institutions we depend on can so easily fail, repeating the mistakes of the past - in 1918, 1927, as illustrated by Barry, and before our eyes in August 2005 - should be sobering for all of us.