Notes from Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney

This is a book that was recommended to be a while ago, but I only got around to reading it today. It likely would have been a page-turner in its own right at any time that I happened to read it, but in these times, it was the very definition of unputdownable.


I have pages and pages of notes, and I’m just going to note stuff over here in haphazard, higgedly-piggedly fashion. Hopefully, I will come back to it later on and write a more considered essay. For the moment, this must do.

  • Between the first recorded case, on the 4th of March 1918 up to sometime in March 1920, the Spanish flu killed anywhere between 50 million to 100 million people. For point of comparison, the two world wars, put together, killed 77 million people.
  • The reason we don’t hear as much about the Spanish flu is because of the Euro-centric reporting of the time. France lost six times as many people to the war as it did to the flu, Germany four times as many – Britain three times and Italy two.But everywhere else, the flu killed more people than did the war.
  • A virus doesn’t typically “jump” over the species barrier. To use the author’s phrase, it “oozes” over, across multiple generations of the virus. And in some cases, having oozed over, it finds itself mutated into a formidable shape indeed: ideally suited to grow and humans unable to defend themselves against it.
  • Climate can cause disease, but there have been cases where disease has caused climate – and as recently as the sixteenth century. The germs unleashed by Europeans in the Americas could possibly have ushered in the Little Ice Age.
  • The flu struck in three waves, and the second wave was by far the deadliest.
  • Australia was almost entirely unaffected by the second wave because of very strict maritime restrictions. But as it turns out, they lifted the restrictions far too soon, therefore becoming susceptible to the third wave.
  • The Vaccine Revolt of Brazil.
  • Naming viruses and the diseases they cause has been a tricky thing for years. Hong Kong objected to the SARS virus outbreak being called that because the full name of Hong Kong then was the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.
  • The Spanish flu had nothing to do with Spain. It emerged either in China, or America or France, but certainly not in Spain. But historical accidents, and the victorious nations of WWI called it the Spanish flu, and so the name stuck.
  • The Spanish, incidentally, called it the Naples soldier flu.
  • Influenza itself simply means influenced by the stars, as that was one of the then prevailing theories of the cause of the flu. When I say then prevailing, I mean much, much before 1918, of course.
  • Shansi’s history with the flu, and the role of Yen Hsi-Shan and an American missionary called Watson was fascinating, as much for the cultural aspects as for the masterful reasoning employed by Watson.
  • Even back then, people were theorizing that the flu may have been biowarfare. The suspicions about the aspirin tablets manufactured by Bayer was particularly interesting.
  • The history of the town of Zamora was also fascinating – and heartbreaking.
  • A sense of disgust is an evolutionary gift that allows some species to dispose of their dead. This is not unique to humans. It is an innate survival mechanism.
  • One of the most important lessons of that time was the ability to quickly identify the source, then the vector (how the disease spreads) and finally ensuring compliance. Again, social distancing matters.
  • The natural experiments of American and Western Samoa were eye-openers. Read more here. Again, social distancing matters.
  • This book has been added to the list.
  • In New York, in the 1830’s cholera was thought to be an Irish disease, while TB was known as the “Jewish disease”.
  • Polypharmacy: multiple medicines being used by a single patient. But in this context, it is the medicinal equivalent of throwing the kitchen sink at the opponent. Because nothing works, use everything.
  • Karen Starko advanced the theory that aspirin might have actually been a poison, so widely was it prescribed and overused. Along similar lines: arsenic, mercury. Not to mention cigarettes and alcohol. (Yes, I am aware that some things haven’t changed)
  • Black Wedding: this was, of course, tried as a cure. Among many other things, worldwide.
  • Learning more about Wu Lien-Teh was fun.
  • Étaples, and the theories surrounding the origin of the Spanish flu over there ought to be a case study in statistics classes the world over.
  • Would you give yourself an injection of the coronavirus in the cause of furthering science? This guy, René Dujarric de la Rivière, did.
  • Between 13 million and 18 million Indians died because of the 1918 outbreak of the flu.
  • In Paris, some of the highest fatalities were recorded in the most affluent areas. But a deep dive into the data revealed that it was the servants living below the richer floors that had the highest rates of fatality.
  • I got to learn about the molecular clock.
  • Culture, diet, gender, religion and heritable traits all played – and still play! – a role. This point deserves a separate blog post of its own.
  • The painter Edward Munch may have gone through two bouts of the flu – and one of it may have been responsible for The Scream.
  • The silver linings were that Russia, USA and China, among other nations, updated their National Health Systems after the Spanish Flu.
  • The flu may have had a role in how the Treaty of Versailles played out, which is a fascinating thought.
  • Might there be a link between La Nina and pandemics? Speculative, but worth a read.

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