New Book “Rabid” Charts the Cultural History of Rabies

Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy take a fascinating look at rabies through the ages.


Rabies has always occupied a mythically scary place in human existence. It has the distinction of being the most lethal transmissible disease of humans and dogs. Everything about it is interesting, from its mechanism of transmission to its effects on the nervous system and its effects on human culture, so I jumped at the opportunity to read Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.

It turns out that a cultural history of rabies must also be a cultural history of dogs. Rabies, dogs, and people have always gone together. The book fascinatingly charts the impact the disease has had on the relationship between dogs and people for thousands of years.

Dogs have long been humanity’s best friends, but rabies historically impacted that friendship. Before the advent of canine rabies vaccines, the overwhelming majority of human rabies cases were the result of dog bites. In places where rabies is still a significant threat, dogs remain the main source of human infection. Long before the cause of rabies was clear, people understood that a family pet could transform from a docile companion to a carrier of a horrible death.

The book tracks the history of rabies and dogs from some of the earliest recorded times. The authors take some time to describe the Greek word lyssa — a very special, overwhelming, and all-consuming mindless rage — as it is used by Homer in The Iliad, which puts the fact that rabies is in a genus of viruses known as lyssaviruses in context.

Suffice it to say that Homer’s contemporaries did not hold dogs in the same esteem we modern Westerners do. The book reveals that the same could be said throughout the Middle Ages. Even through the Renaissance and into the 19th century, rabies was a chronic threat to the lives and bonds between humans and dogs. The book provides plenty of cultural examples of the terror and damage caused by rabies, and links rabies to cultural curiosities such as werewolves, vampires, and zombies.

The book addresses Louis Pasteur’s remarkable efforts to devise a rabies vaccine, which succeeded in creating vaccines for both humans and dogs. Those efforts also sparked the antivaccine movement, which is alive and well to this day (and whose members would be well served by watching the ending of Old Yeller).

The rabies vaccine fundamentally changed the relationship between dogs and people in developed countries. We now share our beds and lives with our dogs without placing ourselves at any real risk of contracting the disease. Human exposure to rabies is astonishingly rare and comes most often via the teeth of bats.

In countries where rabies vaccination is not common, dogs are necessarily kept at arms’ length or further. Feral dogs roam the streets. Even owned dogs are generally marginalized and viewed as potential risks. Rabies outbreaks are often treated with mass canine slaughter.

Wasik and Murphy spent two years researching the book, and their coverage of the subject is comprehensive but never boring. I took some interest in their sections on rabies in modern times. For instance, physicians have recently had some success treating human rabies with medical comas. The authors include not only descriptions of the success rates and controversies in the treatment, but also a description of the tactics employed (for those who are curious, the main treatment is a ketamine-midazolam infusion).

They also devote a fascinating chapter to a recent rabies outbreak in Bali, where they describe the efforts of a determined crew who promoted vaccination over extermination — and where the authors actually see a rabid dog firsthand (something that I, to my knowledge, have never seen).

Rabid is a book that will fascinate any person who loves dogs, whether they are curious about rabies or not. I devoured it in less than a day, and I strongly recommend it.

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