Book Review: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
My new library (where I work as a librarian) serves a school of public health. Working with these students has opened up a whole new world of science to me. Public health is a fascinating combination of medicine, science, culture, and communication. So when I saw this public health book on Netgalley, I knew I needed to give it a shot.
This is a completely fascinating book. Prior to reading it, my main knowledge of rabies came from that episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman where her adopted son’s dog gets rabies and bites her other adopted son’s fiancee. I didn’t really understand how much of a plague it used to be, but I did know that you’re required to get your pets vaccinated for it.
I learned SO MUCH from this book! And it wasn’t a struggle to read or absorb the information either. Wasik and Murphy strike that hard to find balance in writing science for the layman. They explain complex, scientific things without so much scientific terminology as to be a struggle for the average reader but with enough so that you’ve still learned something. For instance:
With most zoonotic leaps in disease, animal contact is the spark, but urbanization is the bone-dry tinder; a newly evolved pathogen can’t spread from person to person, after all, unless people run across one another in the first place. (location 453)
There are a few passages that use more scientific terminology than that, but they only use them after explaining them. You do not have to be a scientist to be able to read, enjoy, and learn from this book.
The basic structure of the book is typical of a history book. In fact, think of it kind of as a scientific history book. It starts with the earliest accounts of rabies and moves up through time to the present. The strongest passages are: Greco-Roman history of the disease, Dark Ages history of the disease, Pasteur’s creation of a vaccination, and the modern day outbreak in Bali. These strike the perfect balance of discussing the understanding and treatment of the disease and the reflections of rabies and fear of rabies in popular culture of that time period.
For instance, in the Greco-Roman period we learn:
Pliny’s thoughts tend to involve using the animal to treat the man. His best-known cure—to “insert in the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite”—lives on today in our expression “hair of the dog,” referring to a not-quite-so-dubious hangover remedy. (location 473)
Or this fascinating bit of public health history in the Pasteur section:
Pasteur’s collaborator Roux believed that Pasteur selected rabies as a subject for research as a calculated bit of stagecraft, so that his ideas about vaccination would attract maximum public interest. (location 1714)
The other sections, particularly the era after the vaccine to about the 1980s, suffer a bit from a lack of focus and direction. There’s a part where the authors try to convince us that zombies are a reflection of a latent fear of rabies. Ok? But that’s rather speculative compared to the rest of the book. There are other elements of pop culture that are nowhere near as loosely connected that they discuss, such as the actual rabies books and movies that came out in the UK when the Chunnel was put in and people were afraid that rabid animals would come over to the island nation from France. That is a tight, interesting connection. The zombie one was a bit of a stretch. I was more interested in more information on things like Old Yeller and why the authors think that even with the vaccine in the US and very little threat at the time the public still was fascinated with the idea of a rabid dog.
The book also explores other zoonotic diseases (diseases that originate in non-human animals). Although this is also technically not rabies, this connection makes a lot more sense, particularly since more started cropping up in the 20th century after rabies was beaten down by vaccination. The knowledge we have from working against rabies and promoting vaccination of it via public health initiatives could really help with things like HIV/AIDS and H1N1. This is using past public health experience to aid in future endeavors, which helps give the book a certain umph and validity for modern readers.
So, although the book struggles a bit during the early 20th century time period, the rest of it is very well put-together. It is written at the appropriate level for a popular science history book. It is easy to learn from and includes lots of fascinating tid-bits in addition to the basic rabies history and information. It also demonstrates as a kind of side-story the history of public health. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of rabies, the history of vaccination, and most especially to those with an interest in public health issues.
4 out of 5 stars