It’s a disease that crawls in you a centimeter or two every day, slow and steady. Once you feel it – a twitch of your finger, maybe, or a headache – it’s already too late. You are dead. But only after you become viscerally terrified of water (hydrophobic). Before you die, you may bite a caretaker on the way out.
Worst of all? You probably got it from Man’s Best Friend. Your Best (non-human) Friend.
It’s rabies. To be fair, unless you’re one of the 55,000 unlucky people who die from it each year (mostly in low-income countries in Asia and Africa), this isn’t, strictly speaking, you anymore. You’re vaccinated, or at least post-exposure-vaccinated before you show symptoms, just in case.
As Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, the authors of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, put it,
“Rabies has always been with us. For as long as there has been writing, we have written about it. For as long, even, as we have kept company with dogs, this menace inside them has sometimes emerged to show its face to us”
Almost unique among diseases, the virus is virtually 100% fatal without pre-exposure or post-exposure-but-pre-symptom vaccination (HIV is another).
Unfortunately, the book is not as fascinating as the disease; while it starts out strong, it flags after the discussion of Pasteur’s vaccine (which is really fascinating), and never really picks back up (though the tale of Jeanna Giese and Dr. Rodney Willoughby, which can also be heard on Radiolab, is great). It would be better as a 5,000-word magazine feature.
Because of our intimacy with dogs, and their intimacy with rabies, the first half of the book explores how they came about – how the wolf transformed into Man’s Best Friend. It was because of our waste, actually:
“Scientists theorize that the indispensable hearth of domestication was the human garbage pile, with the wolves that scavenged there some fifteen thousand years ago becoming gradually more tame.”
The book delves into man’s relationship with rabies, too: it was a disease of rage, and madness, and one that turned the ever-thoughtful, ever-tame Man into Beast:
“The French word rage is a derivative of rabies, which in Latin served as a rough equivalent of lyssa. As with that Greek term, rage in French begins its life both as a horrible disease and as something more profound, a sort of animalistic fury tinged with madness.”
In medieval times, the medicine practiced was Hippocrates’s and Galen’s; little changed for hundreds of years. It sounds pretty strange to modern ears. We now know that rabies isn’t curable or treatable by any medicine known to man, ever, but at the time medieval medicine men tried just about everything:
“’Other men pull all the feathers from around a live rooster’s anus and, hanging the poor bird by the neck and wings, set the anus on the bite wound, on the theory that said anus would suck forth the poison. If the rooster swells up and dies, then the hound is mad, but the man will be healed; that is, the book avers, “many men say” this is the case, but “thereof I make no affirmation.”
(My favorite part is how the prescriber doesn’t explicitly endorse the treatment himself. “I’m just saying I heard it from a guy who knows a guy.”)
The authors then touch on how rabies affected literature – werewolves and vampires galore – which is interesting but feels forced
For an anecdote collector, the book holds a few gems, like those cited above, but overall I was a bit disappointed by it.
If you’re really interested in rabies, pick up this book. Otherwise, I’d recommend you read Spillover instead.