Review: “Rabid” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy


Thumbs up for Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Medicine/history.

Somewhat uneven—or perhaps it’s just that I found the development of the rabies vaccine a far more riveting story than the section on the folklore of vampires and werewolves, which even the authors acknowledge have only a pretty vague connection with rabies. But if you like approachable, immersive books of medical history, I’d recommend this one. Once you get past the folklore, there’s some great (read: fascinatingly horrifying) stuff here:

Bourrel’s two rabid dogs were part of a surge of rabies cases in Paris during 1880, and so the Pasteur laboratory would have no trouble obtaining infectious material. They got it from kennels of the national veterinary school at Maisons-Alfort and from private veterinary offices around the city. Because rabies could not be cultured on a plate or in a vial, it had to be maintaining in living tissue. In the 1880s, this meant within the corporeal cells of a living afflicted animal. The maintenance of rabid animals within the modest rooms and basement of the Pasteur laboratory was discomforting to the personnel. There was the ever-present risk of contracting rabies—either directly from the jaws of the animal, or at the bench top, where infected tissues and sharp instruments could combine to do harm. Meanwhile, the researchers were forced to weather the public fury of antivivisectionists, who denounced their work as senseless torture of innocent animals.

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