A woodcut from 1512 of an attacking werewolf by the German painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image: Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum).
Our demons have their origins in our dread of death and the unknown.
Halloween, is a time for costuming ourselves and confronting those fears (and, most importantly, for outsized consumption of sweets).
For those of us celebrating Halloween disguised as vampires, werewolves and zombies, we owe a great debt to one of the world’s deadliest and most feared zoonotic viruses, rabies.
I have written about the fascinating microbial origins of some of our most enduring humanoid monsters in “The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires.”
An unrecognizable family member demonically possessed by some unfathomable but instantly recognizable animal instinct.
The frothing at the mouth, the lucid madness, the lost humanity: it’s all here and stems from our ancient, tragic history with rabies and canines.
To be human is a sacred and inviolable thing; rabies infection breaches that principal.
The animal bite and the transmission of disease represent a moment of transgressive contact between animal mouth and human flesh, the possibility of losing one’s humanity and regressing to an animal state.
Our horror stories capitalise on this lurid fear.
Rabies, that bestial virus, that grand transmogrifier, has terrified generations with its guarantee of “a slow warping of the mind and a pained, gruesome demise.”
Its inescapable death sentence and dreadful, transformative effects in the infected have seared itself in our public imaginations while infiltrating our literature and cinemas.
There were many great works of spectacular engineering in the 19th century such as gigantic steamships, innovative bridges and fantastic buildings.
None of them, however, saved as many lives as this immense and complex infrastructure project under the streets of one of the largest cities of the world:
It was 1854 and John Snow, a physician with his practice in the Soho part of London, poured over his map of the city.
He’d been working on it since the first signs of a cholera outbreak that year. Carefully he had marked where each new case had appeared.
Photograph: Sewers of London Chief Construction Engineer: Joseph Bazalgette, an Italian Engineer.
Cholera was the scourge of big cities in the 19th century and an outbreak could kill hundreds or thousands of people.
The prevailing notion was that the infectious agent was carried through the air by smell, an idea called the “miasma theory.”
Snow suspected, however, that the disease was actually transmitted in some other way. In 1849 he’d written an essay, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, suggesting that transmission was being made through unclean water.
His map seemed to bear out his idea. He found by looking at his records that all the recent cases clustered around a public water pump on Broad Street.
Of those few cases that occurred nearer to another pump he found that the residents were still using the Broad Street pump anyway because they preferred the taste of the water.
Especially telling was that of the 70 workers at a nearby brewery, none of them got sick. They only drank the beer provided to them for free.
His study of the pattern of infection was so thorough that he managed to convince the local council to remove the handle from the pump, bringing the outbreak to a close.
Back Then:[Wintergreen] boiled in wine and water and given to drink to them that have any inward ulcers in their kidneys or neck of the bladder, doth wonderfully help them; it stayeth also all fluxes, whether of blood or humours, [such] as the lask, bloody flux, women’s courses, and bleeding of the womb, and taketh away any inflammation rising upon pains of the heart.
– The English Physician, Nicholas Culpeper, 1652
And Now:Oil of wintergreen, now obtained by distillation of the leaves, contains methyl salicylate, similar to aspirin, which is a longstanding treatment for cardiovascular conditions including heart attacks, acting as an anti-inflammatory and blood thinner.
Scientists have announced that they may have solved one of history’s biggest biomedical mysteries—why the deadly 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed perhaps 50 million people worldwide, largely targeted healthy young adults.
The explanation turns out to be surprisingly simple: People born after 1889 were not exposed as kids to the kind of flu that struck in 1918, leaving them uniquely vulnerable.
Older people, meanwhile, had been exposed to flu strains more closely related to the 1918 flu, offering some immunity.
Simply put, the Spanish flu owed its ferocity to a switch in dominant influenza varieties that had occurred a generation earlier. (Related: “1918 Flu That Killed 50 Million Originated in China.”)
“All a matter of timing,” says virologist Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University in New York, who was not part of the study.
Researchers involved in the study looked at the evolutionary history of the components of the 1918 flu, which was built of genes from human and avian flu strains. They unraveled the history of dominant flu strains stretching back to 1830.
The evolutionary biologists found that a worldwide 1889 outbreak of the so-called Russian flu, the H3N8 flu virus, left a generation of children that had not been exposed to anything resembling the Spanish flu, which was an H1N1 strain.
(The H and N in the flu designation stand for proteins called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, respectively).
The spread of a more closely related H1 flu variety after 1900 provided partial immunity to children born after that time. That closed the window of vulnerability.
“You have the most deadly flu pandemic in history essentially leaving the elderly, its most frequent victims, completely alone,” says biologist Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who led the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report.
Instead, people aged 18 to 29 died in droves during the outbreak, which killed about 1 in 200 of victims.
Experts have suggested that such a window of vulnerability partly explained the 1918 pandemic, Racaniello notes.
But the new study provides computational evidence that the 1918 flu’s precursor originated around 1907, he says, and explains how the window of vulnerability opened and closed for the disease.
This remarkable woodcut image comes from Charles Estienne’s (1501-1564) De Dissectione Partium corporis Humani linri tres, a 375-page opus illustrated with 62 fantastic full-page woodcuts and published in 1545.
This work is surpassed I think only by the masterpiece Fabrica by Vesalius (1543)–the great standard of anatomical illustration.
Actually, historians have determined that the Estienne book was about ready to go in 1539, but due to a variety of problems, was not published until two years following his fellow-classmate’s Vesalius’ work.
Had things gone a little differently for Estienne, he would most certainly enjoy more ethereal fame than he does now, though I’m sure some of that would be diminished by the weird and exotic nature of many of his prints.
Vesalius chose a somewhat more pragmatic approach, though just about everyone would seem so compared to Estienne. The Estienne work comes at the beginning of the wave of spectacularly illustrated early book. T
he beautiful mind here in Estienne’s effort is perhaps the most lovely of all of his illustrations–it is also the most unusual, and the most perspective-abusing.
Our subject is seated in a seemingly-normal armchair of the period, except that the posts lack arms. The perspective is such that the chair back seems to alternate position, an apparent illusion, changing from front-to-back and back-to-front, while the chair back posts seem to also alternate heights.
Nothing else seems to quite work either: the floor is at odds with the walls and ceiling, the window is falling inwards, and the chair (again) seems to float when you look at the ceiling.Be that as it may, the dissection of the brain takes place with the cadaver in the chair, the body held there with pins (one of which is seen coming through the right shoulder.
The four elements of the brain identified A to D are explained in the ornamental legend at top. We can see the rest of the top of the head placed on the stool at left, just in case anyone was wondering.
Again, the Estienne book was a magnificent and somewhat twisty-unusual accomplishment.
Had he published in 1539, which was a definite “maybe”, it would be Estienne who would’ve been known for introducing such things as the first time the entire human body was discussed and illustrated, and the first time that a serial dissection was presented and illustrated.
But he didn’t get the job done in ’39, and so he is not known for these things. But almost.
Something happened to Estienne in 1561: after he had been appointed printer to the king of France, things went badly, and he went into bankruptcy, evidently dying in debtors prison in 1564. fine, old, principled and somewhat-monied family or not, Estienne didn’t last long in incarceration.
Watercolour: Shen Nung seated at the mouth of a cave, dressed in traditional garb made from leaves, holding a branch with leaves and berries in his right hand. Anonymous Chinese artist, 1920. Wellcome Images
This circa 1920 watercolour is a copy of an ancient original and can be found in the Wellcome Library’s Art Collection.
Legend has it that Shen Nong (神农), or ‘Divine Farmer’, was one of the Three Sovereigns, a group of mythological rulers and deities from ancient China circa 2852 to 2070 BC who established the Chinese life-arts.
Said to have been born the son of a princess and a heavenly dragon, Shen Nong is believed to have taught the ancient Chinese their practices of agriculture, as well as the use of herbal drugs, which became the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine.
The earliest written record connecting Shen Nong to the practice of Chinese herbal medicine is found in the Huai Nan Zi (淮南子), or ‘The Masters of Huainan’, the Chinese philosophical classic from the Han dynasty in 122BCE.
The text claims that Shen Nong transformed the ancient people’s diet from one of meat, wild fruits and clams by teaching them how to sow and harvest grains and vegetables.
He is also said to have discovered and classified some 365 species of herbs and medicinal plants and is often referred to as the ‘God of Chinese herbal medicine’.
Tea is allegedly one of his great discoveries, as it proved to be the antidote for almost 70 varieties of poisons. Shen Nong discovered tea by accident when the tea leaves from twigs he was using for a fire rose up on a column of hot air and landed in the water he was trying to boil.
Being a keen herbalist, he tasted the resulting brew and this became the origins of tea. Shen Nong tasted hundreds of herbs in order to determine their medicinal value.
The story of Shen Nong has been passed down orally for centuries and has been differently embellished throughout histories.
Some versions even claim Shen Nong had a see-through stomach that allowed him to see the effects of various herbs on his internal organs.
However, by all accounts, because of his tireless efforts, countless herbs are now commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and knowledge about herbal medicine has been handed down for centuries.