A canine suspected of being rabid that had been exhibiting symptoms of rabies, including restlessness and overall uncharacteristic aggressive behavior.
Rabies is one of mankind’s long-feared diseases. And rightfully so: for centuries, a bite from a crazed, slavering animal was almost always a guarantee of a slow warping of the mind and a pained, gruesome demise. A death sentence.
I just recently finished reading about our long and tragic relationship with rabies in Rabid: A Cultural History Of The World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, easily one of the finest non-fiction narratives on infectious diseases.
The husband-and-wife duo have synergistically joined forces as a journalist and public health veterinarian to write a witty and thorough telling of the history and cultural mythology of the virus and the animals that it infects, us included.
The book charts the earliest mentions of rabies treatment in ancient Greek and medieval Islamic medicine, and follows its manifestations in folklore, literature and cinema, and to its eventual taming in the development of Pasteur’s hard-won vaccine.
It’s a delightful read spanning the stories of Odysseus and American frontiersmen, of the Brontë sisters and Stephen King, and of Christian saints and vampire.
A hospitalized man is shown in restraints as he suffers from the final stages of the rabies infection, 1959. Image: CDC
Upon finishing the book, I felt that there appeared to be no aspect of our culture that this virus hasn’t played a role in infecting and transfiguring.
But the most intriguing aspect of the book is its brief sojourn into the development of some of our most historically endurable monsters: vampires, werewolves and zombies. The authors write,
Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, Europe gestated two enduring legends whose part-human, part-animal villains bite their victims, thereby passing along their own degraded conditions.
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.