Rats, Lice And History

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Overview

When Rats, Lice and History appeared in 1935, Hans Zinsser was a highly regarded Harvard biologist who had never written about historical events. Although he had published under a pseudonym, virtually all of his previous writings had dealt with infections and immunity and had appeared either in medical and scientific journals or in book format. Today he is best remembered as the author of Rats, Lice, and History, which gone through multiple editions and remains a masterpiece of science writing for a general readership.

To Zinsser, scientific research was high adventure and the investigation of infectious disease, a field of battle. Yet at the same time he maintained a love of literature and philosophy. His goal in Rats, Lice and History was to bring science, philosophy, and literature together to establish the importance of disease, and especially epidemic infectious disease, as a major force in human affairs. Zinsser cast his work as the "biography" of a disease. In his view, infectious disease simply represented an attempt of a living organism to survive. From a human perspective, an invading pathogen was abnormal; from the perspective of the pathogen it was perfectly normal.

This book is devoted to a discussion of the biology of typhus and history of typhus fever in human affairs. Zinsser begins by pointing out that the louse was the constant companion of human beings. Under certain conditions–to wash or to change clothing–lice proliferated. The typhus pathogen was transmitted by rat fleas to human beings, who then transmitted it to other humans and in some strains from human to human.

Rats, Lice and History is a tour de force. It combines Zinsser's expertise in biology with his broad knowledge of the humanities

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Zinsser's account of lice and men remains a delight. Written in 1935 as a latter-day variation on Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Zinsser's book gives a picaresque account of how the history of the world has been shaped by epidemics of louseborne typhus.....Zinnser's romp through the ancient and modern worlds describes how epidemics devastated the Byzantines under Justinian, put Charles V atop the Holy Roman Empire, stopped the Turks at the Carpathians, and turned Napolean's Grand Armée back from Moscow." —Gerald Weissmann, Emerging Infectious Diseases "This book... is listed among the best sellers. The style is delightful, and the subject matter very interesting... [It gives an] account of man's defeats and victories against epidemics... Those who have read Dr. Zinsser's articles will enjoy this book, and to otehrs it will be a pleasant surprise." —Elizabeth Hard, The American Journal of Nursing "No one who buys this book will feel cheated." —H. M. Parshley, Nation "This book will surely be studied with great interest by the lay reader... [I]t presents "a fascinating blend of scientific and historical research, humour, and stimulating opinion." —The British Medical Journal “I had the fun of editing Hans’s book Rats, Lice and History, that unique account of what infectious diseases had done to change the fate of nations.” —Edward Weeks, The Atlantic
From Barnes & Noble
A fascinating and revealing exploration of the scourge of plague and disease and its impact on society and history. Chronicles the devastation caused by epidemics, from typhus to the Black Death, documenting the human response to disease.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781412806725
  • Publisher: Transaction Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/31/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 332
  • Sales rank: 807,039
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Hans Zinsser (1878-1940) received his doctorate at Columbia University and also was an instructor of bacteriology at Columbia University. Throughout his career he was also a professor at Stanford University as well as Harvard University. His scientific work focused on bacteriology and immunology and he is greatly associated with Brill's disease as well as typhus.

Gerald N. Grob is the Henry E. Sigerist Professor of the History of Medicine (emeritus) at Rutgers University. He is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and has been the president of the American Association for the History of Medicine. He is the author of The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America and, most recently, (with Howard H. Goldman) The Dilemma of Federal Mental Health Policy: Radical Reform or Incremental Change?

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Table of Contents


Introduction to the Transaction Edition     ix
Preface     xxix
In the nature of an explanation and an apology     3
Being a discussion of the relationship between science and art     15
Leading up to the definition of bacteria and other parasites, and digressing briefly into the question of the origin of life     34
On parasitism in general, and on the necessity of considering the changing nature of infectious diseases in the historical study of epidemics     57
Being a continuation of Chapter IV, but dealing more particularly with so-called new diseases and with some that have disappeared     77
Diseases of the ancient world: a consideration of the epidemic diseases which afflicted the ancient world     105
A continuation of the consideration of diseases of the ancients, with particular attention to epidemics and the fall of Rome     128
On the influence of epidemic diseases on political and military history, and on the relative unimportance of generals     150
On the louse: we are now ready to consider the environment which has helped to form the character of our subject     166
More about the louse: the need for this chapter will be apparent to those who have entered into the spirit of this biography     179
Much about rats - a little about mice     189
We are at last arriving at the point at which we can approach the subjectof this biography directly     212
In which we consider the birth, childhood, and adolescence of typhus     229
In which we follow the earliest epidemic exploits of our disease     240
Young manhood: the period of early vigor and wild oats     265
Appraisal of a contemporary and prospects of future education and discipline     282
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2011

    AP World History Review: A Biologists Tale Of Mans Struggle With Typhus

    When Rats, Lice and History was published in 1935, Hans Zinsser was a highly regarded Harvard biologist who had never written about historical events. Although he had published under a false name, most of his previous writings had dealt with infectious diseases and had appeared either in scientific journals or in books. Today he is best remembered as the author of Rats, Lice and History, which remains a masterpiece of scientific writing for most readers. To Zinsser, scientific research, bacteriology and epidemiology, was his life. Yet at the same time he maintained a love of literature. His goal in Rats, Lice and History was to bring science and literature together to show the importance of infectious diseases as a major factor in human life. Zinsser cast his work as the "biography" of Typhus, with which his book is about. In his view, infectious disease simply represents an attempt of a living organism to survive. From a human perspective, an invading pathogen is absurd; from the perspective of the pathogen it is perfectly normal. This book is devoted to the biology of typhus and history of typhus fever and human reactions to it. Zinsser begins by pointing out that the pathogen was a constant companion of human beings. Under certain conditions,failure to wash or to change clothing that was infected with lice. Typhus was transmitted by fleas to human beings, who then transmitted it to other humans. Rats, Lice, and History combines Zinsser's expertise in bacteriology and epidemiology with his broad knowledge of humanity.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2011

    Rats, Lice, and History, one of the few books worth rereading

    Its really hard to find any good books anymore. Especially books that are worth reading again and again. 'Rats, Lice, and History' goes above and beyond, despite its grueling topic. Hans Zinsser does an excellent job educating us about all of these different diseases and their effect on society, while keeping the voice cool. Not being too gruesome, and not keeping it boring either. Overall, 'Rats, Lice, and History" is an excellent book that, despite its old age, keeps its enjoyment throughout the ages. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone, except for young children, of course.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews

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