Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

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Overview

A maddened creature, frothing at the mouth, lunges at an innocent victim—and, with a bite, transforms its prey into another raving monster. It’s a scenario that underlies our darkest tales of supernatural horror, but its power derives from a very real virus, a deadly scourge known to mankind from our earliest days. In this fascinating exploration, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy chart four thousand years in the history, science, and cultural mythology of ...

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Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

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Overview

A maddened creature, frothing at the mouth, lunges at an innocent victim—and, with a bite, transforms its prey into another raving monster. It’s a scenario that underlies our darkest tales of supernatural horror, but its power derives from a very real virus, a deadly scourge known to mankind from our earliest days. In this fascinating exploration, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy chart four thousand years in the history, science, and cultural mythology of rabies.

The most fatal virus known to science, rabies kills nearly 100 percent of its victims once the infection takes root in the brain. A disease that spreads avidly from animals to humans, rabies has served throughout history as a symbol of savage madness, of inhuman possession. And today, its history can help shed light on the wave of emerging diseases, from AIDS to SARS to avian flu, that we now know to originate in animal populations. 

From Greek myths to zombie flicks, from the laboratory heroics of Louis Pasteur to the contemporary search for a lifesaving treatment, Rabid is a fresh, fascinating, and often wildly entertaining look at one of mankind’s oldest and most fearsome foes. 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Only two or three Americans die each year from rabies, almost all of them from infections received overseas, but not even effective vaccines have lessened our fear of this worldwide scourge. There is ample justification for this horror: For four full millennia, rabies has attacked its victims, animals and humans alike, killing them after it drives them mad. Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy's Rabid walks cautious readers through the haunting history of this virus, describing how its unpredictable outbreaks infused terror into dark forests, betrayed man's best friend, and even helped implant myths and legends of walking dead zombies and bloodsucking vampires. A well-researched catharsis of primal fears.

The Washington Post
…a fascinating cultural history by husband-and-wife team Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.
—Timothy R. Smith
Publishers Weekly
Rabies has not only wreaked havoc for 4,000 years on man and his best friend but also mirrors the history of medicine while generating vampire images that still frighten and fascinate us. In this ambitious and smart history of the virus, Wired senior editor Waski (And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture) and public health and veterinary expert Murphy (who are husband and wife) start with the Greeks and their love-hate relationship with their hounds, move to the Middle Ages—when Islamic scholars made the first real advances in understanding the disease—and barrel through to the revolutionary “germ theory” discoveries of the late 19th century. The authors track how science tried to tame the scourge, with its ravaging neurological effects. Yet the rare tales of modern survivors only underscore that, despite the existence of treatment through a series of injections, we’re at a stalemate in conquering rabies. Look for delightful detours into cultural manifestations of our fear of rabies, including a survey of vampire, werewolf, and zombie literature and films— from Charlotte Brontë to Anne Rice, and right up to the Twilight series. Agent: Tina Bennett, Janklow & Nesbit. (July)
Library Journal
Rabies strikes terror into the hearts of humankind like few other diseases because of the way it can turn a beloved pet (or person) into a foaming, frenzied beast who will suffer an agonizing death in nearly 100 percent of cases. Many people grew up with haunting images of Old Yeller, but, as husband-and-wife team Wasik (senior editor, Wired; And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture) and Murphy, a veterinarian, demonstrate, the fear of rabies dates back to ancient times. They place the world's deadliest virus in its historical and cultural context with a scientifically sound and compelling history that begins in ancient Mesopotamia and ends in 21st-century Bali. Highlights include chapters on Louis Pasteur, who developed the first rabies vaccine, and the few humans who have survived rabies infection. The authors also link rabies to myths and legends, including werewolves, vampires, and witches, and discuss rabies in literature and humankind's long, close relationship with dogs. VERDICT Readable, fascinating, informative, and occasionally gruesome, this is highly recommended for anyone interested in medical history or the cultural history of disease. [See Prepub Alert, 1/8/12.]—Janet A. Crum, City of Hope Lib., Duarte, CA
Library Journal
No dry medical tome, this book digs up the rabid origins of cultural fixtures like werewolves and vampires. Reaching back to ancient Babylon and the shores of Troy, Wasik and Murphy trace the path this terrifying virus has burnt through human history—while it is still a certain death sentence, the disease was nearly eliminated after Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux developed a vaccine in the late 19th century. Full of art, literature, and history, this is the perfect science book for humanities nerds. (LJ 6/1/12)—Molly McArdle

(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143123576
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 6/25/2013
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 174,940
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Wasik

Bill Wasik is a senior editor at Wired and was formerly a senior editor at Harper’s; he writes on technology, media, and crowd dynamics. Monica Murphy holds degrees in public health from Johns Hopkins University and in veterinary medicine from the University of Minnesota. They are married and live with their son and whippet in Oakland, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Ours is a domesticated age. As civilization has advanced over the march of millennia, humans have assiduously stripped the animal kingdom of its armies, decommissioned its officers. Some erstwhile adversaries we have hunted to extinction, or nearly so. Others we confine to zoos, to child-friendly safari parks. The balance we shunt to the margins as we clear their land for ourselves—erecting our own sprawling habitats on the ruins of theirs, naming our cul-de-sacs for whatever wilderness we dozed to pave them.

Peer through news reports, though, and one can find pockets of resistance, as if some ancient animal essence were periodically reawakening. Consider the bobcat in Cottonwood, Arizona, that set out on a rampage one recent March evening, menacing a worker outside a Pizza Hut and then sauntering into a bar, sending patrons onto the pool table, mauling the one who dared to snap a picture on his phone. Or the furious otter in Vero Beach, Florida, at a waterfront golf community called Grand Harbor (a “gated enclave,” brags its website, “for those seeking the ultimate resort-at-home lifestyle”), that gnawed three residents, one of them while out on the links. Or the enraged beaver at the Loch Raven Reservoir, in the genteel exurban sprawl north of Baltimore, that cruelly interrupted the summertime reverie of four swimmers, a nightmare that ended only when the husband of one pulled the beaver from his wife’s upper thigh and smashed it with a rock.

Typically these creatures will shun the society of humans. But in an instant we can find them transformed into bewilderingly avid attackers, accosting us as we retrieve our mail or walk our dogs, sometimes even carrying out a home invasion. A particularly harrowing tale comes to us from the Adirondack hamlet of Lake George, N.Y. On an April evening just a few years ago, a young couple was walking from their car when they were set upon by a gray fox. The two managed to rush inside their home and close the door. But nearly a half hour later, when they opened the door again, the fox lay in wait; it sprinted toward the opening; only quick reflexes allowed the young man to close it just as the creature’s snout broached the threshold. When an animal control officer arrived, the fox attacked his SUV, repeatedly sinking its teeth into his tires. He shot at it multiple times from out his driver’s side window, but failed to hit his mark. Later, after the officer had finally run the fox over, he told a reporter that it was the single most aggressive foe he had encountered in nine years on the job. “This was a four- or five-pound animal attacking a 3,000-pound vehicle,” he said.

The sheer tenacity: that is the truly chilling element in all these tales. “What disturbs me,” remarked one Connecticut man to the local news, regarding the raccoon he had lately beaten to death with a hammer, “is I smashed his mouth off, I smashed his teeth in, but he still wanted to continue in the attack mode. I was actually terrified at the resilience of this animal.” In Pittsfield, Mass., on a sleepy street backing up to the Housatonic River, a fox attacked twice in an eight-hour span. In the first incident, one neighbor struck the fox multiple times with the lid to his barbecue smoker. Yet still the fox returned earlier the next morning, biting the girl next door; it took twenty minutes for the man and her sister to pry the fox off her leg, before the man could knock the fox unconscious and then choke it to extinction.

One victim in Putnam County, New York, survived her own interminable ordeal with a raccoon, which assaulted her at the end of her half-mile-long driveway. She held down the snarling beast while she tried to free her cellphone to call the house; eventually, her husband and son had to club the raccoon repeatedly with a tire iron before it died. (“I felt that nature had betrayed me,” she later told a reporter for the public-radio show This American Life.)Then there was the red fox in South Carolina that pursued a nine-year-old as he made his way to the school bus one morning. After an adult neighbor sheltered the boy in his house, the fox latched onto the good Samaritan’s foot. He flung the animal into his home office, where it flailed against the walls and windows before finally falling asleep on a dog bed.

Nearly any species can be afflicted. Arizona officials were recently called to the scene after a dog was attacked by a mad peccary, a pig-like creature whose residence in the southwest had until that point been considered largely peaceable. In Robbins, N.C., it was a skunk that beset the pet Pekinese of David Sanders, who was forced to watch the two creatures battle it out for the better part of an hour. (Sanders was unable to shoot the challenger, he explained, because all he had at hand was a shotgun.) In Decatur County, Ga., a donkey fell prey to the madness and bit its owner on the hand. In Imperial, Nebraska, the afflicted animal was literally a lamb, part of a child’s 4-H project gone terribly, almost Biblically awry. Some primeval force must truly be at work when the lamb can be made into a lion.

***

The agent of all these diabolical acts of possession is, of course, a virus. It is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans. Fittingly, the rabies virus is shaped like a bullet: a cylindrical shell of glycoproteins and lipids that carries, in its rounded tip, a malevolent payload of helical RNA. On entering a living thing, it eschews the bloodstream, the default route of most viruses but a path fraught with danger from immuno-protective sentries. Instead, like almost no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one to two centimeters per day (on average) through the axoplasm, the transmission lines that conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. Once inside the brain, the virus works slowly, diligently, fatally to warp the mind, suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal. Aggression rises to fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation is ratcheted up. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness—because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.

If this sounds like a horror movie, we should not be surprised, for it is a scenario bound up into our very concept of horror. Rabies is a scourge as old as human civilization, and the terror of its manifestation is a fundamental human fear, because it challenges the boundary of humanity itself. That is, it troubles the line where man ends and animal begins—for the rabid bite is the visible symbol of the animal infecting the human, of an illness in a creature metamorphosing demonstrably into that same illness in a person.

Today, we understand that more than half our new diseases (60 percent, by a recent tally in Nature) are “zoonotic,” i.e. originating in animal populations, and our widespread fear of the worst of these (swine flu, AIDS, West Nile, Ebola) has been colored by our knowledge of their bestial origins. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that nothing has made humans sicker than our association with animals. Not only our emerging diseases today but the major killers throughout the ages—smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza—evolved from similar diseases in animals. This is what Jared Diamond has called “the lethal gift of livestock,” a major shaper of human destiny; the very fact that the agricultural lifestyle won out over that of the hunter-gatherer is due in part, Diamond argues, because the former “breathed out nastier germs.” Through their close contact with livestock, early farmers built up immunity to illnesses that would readily kill unexposed populations, a dynamic that still holds for emerging infectious diseases today.

Yet until the early twentieth century, humans had no idea that so many of its illnesses derived from animals. During those years when the most catastrophic zoonosis in history struck—the fourteenth-century Black Death, or bubonic plague, which spreads to humans via fleas living on the backs of rats and other rodents—scholars blamed nearly everything else, from demonic forces and bad air to astronomical happenings and even human malefactors. For centuries, rabies was the only illness in which the animalistic transfer, or more like a transformation, was clear. No microscope was required to see the possession take place. A mad animal bit; a mad man appeared; each would die a terrible death. The madness could lurk within any beast, even in—especially in—the most domesticated and loyal of all, the dog.

As the unique mode of animal to human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into animal metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. When Greek myth beholds Lycaon, king of Arcadia, as he transforms into a slavering wolf, his countenance is “rabid,” his jaws “bespluttered with foam.” In fifteenth-century Spain, witch-hunters called saludadores were reputed, also, as healers of rabies, a convergence that makes eminent sense given the widely-held association between witches and demonic canine familiars. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth century, Europe gestated two enduring legends whose part-human, part-animal malefactors bite their victims, thereby passing along their own degraded conditions—namely, the werewolf and the vampire, both of whom haunt the Western imagination to the present day. As Susan Sontag pointed out, even as late as the nineteenth century, when viruses were becoming well understood and a rabies vaccine lay just around the corner, the true source of the rabies panics in France was not the fatality of the disease but rather the “fantasy”—though one might accurately say the fact—“that infection transformed people into maddened animals.”

Paradoxically, during the twentieth century, after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today, many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a footlong syringe into the stomach. (It’s four shots, for the record, and not particularly deep in the arm.) Even as vaccination of dogs in the United States was reducing the infection rate in that species down to negligible levels, a generation of children learned to scrutinize their pet pooches for the slightest signs of madness, largely thanks to the malign influence of Old Yeller, a Walt Disney film about a frontier-era boy who falls in love with a yellow dog that becomes rabid. Twenty-five years later, a novel called Cujo (and its subsequent film adaptation) taught a whole new generation to fear rabies, albeit a bit more forthrightly: no one finished the book or left the theater surprised by what became of that nice dog.

It’s almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror, even as it still terrifies us in the present day. Lately, TV comedians have taken to seizing on it for a laugh: two animated series created by Mike Judge, King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-head, have both done episodes on rabies, as did the long-running medical comedy Scrubs. In the U.S. version of The Office, Michael Scott (the bumbling boss played by Steve Carell), tries to paper over the fact that he has hit an employee with her car by organizing a charity “race for the cure.” The disease he chooses is rabies. The boss soon becomes perplexed at how few donations are forthcoming:

Michael Scott: I was also hoping to hand the giant check to a rabies doctor. How’s that going?

Pam Beesly: Not well. A doctor won’t come out to collect a check for 700 dollars. Or 500 dollars, if we go with the giant check. And also, there is no such thing as a rabies doctor.

***

Contrary to what your television may have told you, there are most assuredly still rabies doctors, and humans still die in the tens of thousands from the disease (55,000, in the latest estimate)—just not usually in the United States, or in Western Europe. The dead hail overwhelmingly from Asia and Africa, from countries where vaccination is too expensive or too difficult to procure. And the course of their suffering is every bit as grim, and as inevitably fatal, as the course endured by victims throughout the millennia.

Indeed, other than the wide availability of painkillers, which can help stifle the final agonies of the disease, the sequence of horrors faced by a rabies patient today is hardly different from those experienced by the man who was probably the most eminent rabies victim in history: Charles Lennox, Fourth Duke of Richmond, who for the two years leading up to his death in 1819 served as Governor-General of Canada, the top post in what was then still a colonial government. The Duke was a famous lover of dogs; a portrait of Lennox as a boy shows the young nobleman reclining against a tree stump as an adoring spaniel paws at his finery. Ironically, it was not a dog but rather a fox, the ostensibly tame pet of a solider whose garrison the Duke had occasion to inspect in Quebec, whose jaws were to blame for his demise. When the fox tangled with his own dog—Blucher, so named in honor of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the Prussian general who had recently bested Napoleon at Waterloo—Lennox stepped in to separate them. The mad fox seized this chance to insult the visiting head of state, chomping down hard on the base of his thumb.

After a bite, the rabies virus binds quickly into the peripheral nerves but then makes its course with almost impossible sloth, requiring usually at least three weeks and often as long as three months to arrive at and penetrate the brain; on rare occasions a full year, or even five years, can elapse before the onset of symptoms. During this time the wound will heal over, and the victim may even forget about his scrape with a snarling beast. But healed or no, as the virus enters the brain the wound will usually seem to return, as if by magic, with some odd sensation occurring at the site. This sensation can take many forms: stabbing pain, or numbness; burning, or unnatural cold; tingling, or itching, or even a tremor. At roughly the same time, these soon-to-be-doomed patients typically display general signs of influenza, with a fever and perhaps a sore throat or some mild nausea. In the case of the Duke of Richmond, it began one day with shoulder pains and a sore throat, then progressed the following day to insomnia and fatigue.

All this is merely prelude to the illness itself, whose most notable symptom in humans—unique, as far as physicians know, to rabies among all diseases —is a terrifying condition called hydrophobia. As the term suggests, hydrophobia is a fear of water, though the word “fear” does not do justice to the eerie and fully physical manner in which it manifests. Present the hydrophobic patient with a cup of water and, though he desperately wants to drink it, his entire body rebels against the consummation of this act. The outstretched arm jerks away just as it is about to bring the cup to the parched lips. Other times the entire body convulses at the thought. Just beholding the water can make the diaphragm involuntarily contract, causing patients to gag and retch. On YouTube one can find video from a 2007 sufferer in Vietnam, showing the travails of a middle-aged construction worker is valiantly attempting to consume some dark beverage from a clear plastic cup. He brings the vessel two thirds of the distance to his lips before his hands begin to tremble uncontrollably. He stares at the fluid, mouth agape, his twitching hands sloshing it over the sides. Finally he forces himself to bring the tiniest sip into his mouth and, overcoming the revulsion in his gullet, to swallow it.

For the Duke of Richmond, though the chronology remains in some dispute, the hydrophobia seems to have struck first on the evening of August 26th, 1819. At dinner with his officers, he found that his glass of claret disagreed with him. “I don’t know how it is,” he is said to have remarked to Colonel Francis Cockburn, one of his retinue, “but I cannot relish my wine tonight as usual. I feel that if I were a dog I should be shot for a mad one!”

The next day, the Duke ate and drank almost nothing and remained in bed. By the evening, he found he could not drink at all. The following morning, a doctor prescribed a gargle, but this, too, had a “convulsive” affect on his throat. He could not even accept his customary shave, so repelled was he by the water in the basin. This day he dragged himself from his bed, because he was scheduled to tour the swamps around the Ontario town of Richmond, recently renamed as such in his honor. But his body rebelled as he stepped into the boat. In terror he jumped back to the shore. Taken to the closest house, he begged to be moved farther from land: the very sound of running water had become unbearable to him. He was moved to a barn and laid down on a deathbed of straw.

Fevers spike high during this final phase of the disease, as the body succumbs to its grip in other, literally visceral ways. The mouth salivates profusely. Tears stream from the eyes. Goosebumps break out on the skin. Cries of agony, as expressed through a spasming throat, can produce the impression of an almost animal bark. In the throes of their convulsions, patients have even been known to bite. At the height of an attack, they also hallucinate. The eminent French physician Armand Trousseau, who practiced in the middle part of the nineteenth century, noted that “the patient is seized with sudden terror; he turns abruptly round, fancying that somebody calls to him.” He cited a case of colleague, one Dr. Bergeron, whose rabies patient “heard the ringing of bells, and saw mice run about on his bed.”

Not uncommonly, male patients succumb to an even more lurid sort of abandon. The virus’s action on the limbic system of the brain can cause them to exhibit hypersexual behavior: increased desire, involuntary erections, and even orgasms, sometimes occurring at a rate of once per hour. If the Duke of Richmond evidenced this symptom, his companions were too gallant to set it down for posterity. But other case reports from history describe up to thirty ejaculations in a single day. The Roman physician Galen, in his own remarks on rabies, describes the case of an unfortunate porter who suffered such emissions for three full days leading up to his death. Commenting on this last case, the eighteenth-century Austrian physician Gerard van Sieten soberly noted, Semen et animam simul efflavit: His seed and his life were lost at the same time.

Despite all the horrors of hydrophobia, arguably the most horrifying aspect is that fact that the attacks will usually subside, for a time, allowing patients periods of terrible lucidity: they are given the opportunity to fully contemplate what their condition portends. Before his death, the Duke dictated a lengthy letter to his eldest daughter, and also gave instructions that his beloved Blucher be handed over to her. “It will make her cry at first,” he said, “but turn him in when she is alone and shut the door.”

***

By now it should be apparent that this book is not for the squeamish or weak-kneed. Encounters with rabies have ever been thus. Louis Pasteur and his assistants, in order to develop their vaccine, had to corral dogs at the apex of their madness and extract deadly slaver from their snarling jaws. Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician, once saw Pasteur perform this trick with a glass tube held in his mouth, as two confederates with gloved hands pinned down a rabid bulldog. Some members of his team soon established a ghoulish failsafe for these procedures. “At the beginning of each session a loaded revolver was placed within their reach,” recalled Marie Cressac, the niece of Pasteur collaborator Emile Roux. “If a terrible accident were to happen to one of them, the more courageous of the two others would put a bullet in his head.”

We cannot claim so much bravado for this volume, on either our account or yours. A better analogy, perhaps, is the difficult process by which veterinarians submit suspect pets for rabies testing—another case study in how this diabolical disease causes nothing but agony for those who hope to behold it. Even today, vets do not use a blood test for rabies in animals; it’s not a pinprick and wait-and-see affair. Only a sampling from the animal’s brain will suffice. Therefore the animal must be killed, with its head removed and shipped off to authorities for study.

The first part of that process—capturing, and humanely dispatching, a deranged animal—is fairly standard stuff for your local vet. But carrying out a decapitation, even of a smallish creature, is much harder than they make it look in slasher pics. This is true not just for the obvious emotional reason: that in many cases, the vet had been trying to save the life of this beloved pet just hours beforehand. It’s also an ordeal in the purely practical sense. The carcass must be hauled onto a treatment table, which usually is reserved for care of the living, but which is the only surface equipped to handle the copious blood that might flow from a newly dead animal. The cadaver is laid out on its back, contorted face cocked skyward. With a scalpel the vet slices readily though the soft tissue around the animal’s neck: fur and skin, muscles and vessels, esophagus and trachea.

Now the vet is stuck with the problem of the spine, the very conduit through which the rabies virus may—or may not—have passed; like Schrödinger’s cat, the animal must be dead for this question to unravel. If the vet is lucky, her hospital has seen enough suspected rabies cases that it has thought to keep a hacksaw handy. In that case, she can take a brute-force path through bone, sawing straight through the tightly interlocked top vertebrae, the axis and atlas. If she is not so lucky, she will have only her scalpel to work with. A ten-minute job can thereby stretch out to forty-five, as she is forced to disarticulate those two top backbones, severing the tendons than bind them and separating one from the other: a decidedly grisly brainteaser.

To be honest, our tour through the four-thousand-year history of rabies has felt a little like that. Sometimes whole weeks got lost in a blur of blood and fur. Our explorations into the cultural meaning of rabies took us deep into the grisliest medical case reports, from ancient and modern times. Then they flung us out again, into the murky realm of myth, to dog-headed men and zombie mobs and the mass butchering of Cairo’s pigs. We’ve made pilgrimages to the Ardennes, to see the site of the holy rabies cure; to the Rue d’Ulm in Paris, to see the spot where Pasteur performed his heroics; and to the island of Bali, where we finally came to stare the devil in the face ourselves.

Now, after two years of sawing, we feel we have finally finished the job, and we are pleased to ship it off to you, the reader. Come to think of it: in the case of a fox, or cat, or even a toy-breed dog, the head might weigh just about the same as the book in your hands right now. Hold it in your outstretched palms, why don’t you, and close your eyes. Not so very heavy, is it? And yet from packages this small—as exurban homeowners sometimes learn, and as the Duke of Richmond discovered far too late—considerable mayhem can be unleashed.

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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 21, 2012

    Truly fascinating subject approached simultaneously from a scien

    Truly fascinating subject approached simultaneously from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. You won't be able to stop reading.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 2, 2012

    A poorly written and rambling account of a fascinating subject

    It is usually best to read books on scientific topics which are written by an expert in the field. Bill Wasik (wired magazine) and Monica Murphy (veterinarian) are certainly not experts and Rabid suffers for it. You will find very little insight into the disease that you could not find in an hour of google searching (which is exactly what this book is...a compilation of random information centered around one topic from people who have no independent knowledge to source from). The pointless off topic ramblings and irrelevancies (the backstory of Saint Hubert for example) and constant use of unnecessary words (eg. "Perhaps it is fitting, then-karmic, even, if we may borrow from a different creed...") leaves the reader rabidly sprinting down the page in search of on relevant fact on the topic of rabies. Don't get me wrong, I like tangents and "bar facts" but not if they are irrelevant, uninteresting and horribly written.

    6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2012

    Good read.

    Good read.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2012

    Fun read.

    An excellent look into the history of a disease that has followed man for millenia. References range from classical mythology to cuttung edge biomedical research.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 5, 2013

    I learned something. The historical accounts, especially from an

    I learned something. The historical accounts, especially from ancient history, were 
    Fascinating to me. A good read.

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  • Posted August 22, 2013

    I really enjoyed this book. It gives you insight into the cultu

    I really enjoyed this book. It gives you insight into the cultural effects of this hideous disease and how humans have tried to make sense of it over the years. I liked getting a historical reference of just how long this disease has coexisted with mankind and the types of circumstances in which it spreads.

    I am particularly interested in viral transmission and the whole neural connection/receptors so I found the mention of research at the end fascinating. I hope more money will go toward research into how it works in the body (human and other animals) and how we can harness the virus' power to reach the brain with therapeutic agents that can't get through any other way.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2013

    Boredom !not the book

    I'm so bored ! I need a nookfreind !
    Here's my email adress : baker_patrick@bellsouth, ( supossed to be a dot )net

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2012

    Interesting disease history and culture interwoven

    A truly fascinating book. This non fiction account explores rabies from the ancient Greeks to present day. I liked the hodge podge nature of the book with interesting anecdotes throughout. The section on the life and work of Louis Pasteur alone made the book worth reading.

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  • Posted September 7, 2012

    Thorough and readable

    This book tells not just the history of the rabies vaccine, which most already know. It also goes into historical accounts and folk cures, rabies myths and legends, and the psychological underpinnings of our fear of rabies. One particularly interesting chapter tells how rabies came to an island that was previously rabies-free, then relates how difficult it was to try to manage the outbreak.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2012

    Interesting and fun to read, with just enough humor and horror m

    Interesting and fun to read, with just enough humor and horror mixed together. As a veterinarian and a scientist the discussion fell a bit flat but as an avid amateur medical historian there were many entertaining moments. A great overview for the average reader on the history and cultural implications surrounding rabies.

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    Posted October 3, 2012

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    Posted July 25, 2012

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    Posted August 1, 2012

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