From a husband-and-wife team, a literate look at the history of one of humankind’s oldest and most frightening scourges.
Wired senior editor Wasik (And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, 2009) and veterinarian Murphy survey literature, cultural history and medical science to tell the story of a disease that has plagued humans wherever they have attracted the company of dogs and other feral animals. Rabies infects not only the bodies of the unfortunate few who have contracted the disease, but also more generally, our fears and imagination. The authors plausibly postulate that the “rage” that made Hector such a terrifying enemy in the Iliad was modeled on rabies; lyssa, the word that describes Hector’s savagery, is the same term Greeks used to describe rabid dogs. So what makes rabid animals so mad? According to Wasik and Murphy, rabies is a slow-working virus that almost uniquely affects the nerves. Once in the brain, it inhibits the autonomic nervous system and manifests in the victim’s foaming at the mouth and hydrophobia (aversion to water). According to the authors, rabies, for which there was no protection or cure until Louis Pasteur’s vaccine of the 1880s, is the primary reason for humanity’s long-term love-hate relationship with canines. “Rabies coevolved to live in the dog, and the dog coevolved to live with us,” they write, “and this confluence, the three of us, is far too combustible a thing.” Fear of rabies may have been behind some other ancient nightmares: the big, bad wolf of fairy tales, the werewolf and vampire of gothic romances and even the zombies so popular today. As entertaining as they are on rabies in culture, the authors also eruditely report on medicine and public health issues through history, from ancient Assyria to Bali to Manhattan in the last five years, showing that while the disease may be contained, it may never be fully conquered.
Surprisingly fun reading about a fascinating malady.