The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It

by Gina Kolata

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Year published: 1999
Category: science thriller; nonfiction thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):


The 1918 influenza pandemic killed tens of millions of people worldwide, including more American soldiers than died in battle during World War I. The flu appeared out of nowhere, wreaked havoc, and disappeared, and the survivors put the horror of those days into the silent past. New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata tells a brief story of the great pandemic, and then picks up the modern-day hunt for the missing killer virus.


Flu is a nonfiction work, overall more journalism than thriller, but in her brilliant telling of the mystery of the 1918 flu virus, Gina Kolata created a page-turner. While the author gives the events of 1918-1919 their due, the majority of the text follows scientists searching for answers. Where did the 1918 virus originate? Why did it kill people in the prime of life, instead of only children and the elderly? And most important of all: what was its genome sequence?

A most unlikely cast of real-life characters seek enough intact bits of flu virus to reconstruct the genome. Virus-chasers include an iconoclastic Swedish scientist, a media-hungry “treasure” seeker, and a steady, thorough pathologist. Their quest takes them to graves scratched out of Arctic permafrost, and the basement archives of the U. S. Armed Forces pathology institute.

Kolata also devotes a substantial section to the 1976 swine flu episode, illustrating the complex public policy decisions that must be made with insufficient information—something we all witnessed recently when swine flu appeared in Mexico in 2009.

Top-notch science writing with several compelling narratives embedded in the pages. I highly recommend this book.