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With a death toll of between 50 and 100 million people and a global reach, the Spanish flu of 1918–1920 was the greatest human disaster, not only of the twentieth century, but possibly in all of recorded history. And yet, in our popular conception it exists largely as a footnote to World War I.
In Pale Rider, Laura Spinney recounts the story of an overlooked pandemic, tracing it from Alaska to Brazil, from Persia to Spain, and from South Africa to Odessa. Telling the story from the point of view of those who lived through it, she shows how the pandemic was shaped by the interaction of a virus and the humans it encountered; and how this devastating natural experiment put both the ingenuity and the vulnerability of humans to the test.
Drawing on the latest research in history, virology, epidemiology, psychology, and economics, Laura Spinney narrates a catastrophe that changed humanity for decades to come, and continues to make itself felt today. In the process she demonstrates that the Spanish flu was as significant – if not more so – as two world wars in shaping the modern world; in disrupting, and often permanently altering, global politics, race relations, family structures, and thinking across medicine, religion and the arts.
Laura Spinney is a science journalist and a literary novelist. She has published two novels in English, one historical, a story set in London’s East End in the 1930s called The Doctor, and the other a more contemporary tale about a soul trapped in limbo, called The Quick (both explore pathology and isolation in the modern European tradition). Her writing on science has appeared in National Geographic, Nature, The Economist and The Telegraph, among others. Born in the UK, she has also lived in France and Switzerland. Her oral history portrait of a European city, Rue Centrale, was published in 2013 by Editions L’Age d’Homme, in French and English.
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