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Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Bill Wasik, Monica Murphy

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Member:veevoxvoom
Title:Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus
Authors:Bill Wasik
Other authors:Monica Murphy
Info:Viking Adult (2012), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:***1/2
Tags:non-fiction, history, science

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Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik (2012)

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Everyone has weird interests that don’t really make sense. One of mine is that I’ve always been fascinated by the disease rabies. How it works, its cultural history, its effects, its terrifying possibilities. This interest just isn’t something explored much in literature or nonfiction, at least not that I’ve run across. When I asked for a recommendation for rabies-themed novels, this suggestion immediately interested me and I ordered it in a rush.

No matter how interesting the subject or well done the writing, I read non-fiction slowly. A flaw for sure. This one fascinated me from the beginning; the writing style helped bring the subject material to life in a smooth, non-pretentious manner. Not dry at all, and perhaps sometimes taking liberties with humor, I hold no complaints for the writing form. I do think sometimes the authors tended to drag on a point of view too long, or overemphasize certain sections where it became slightly tedious.

The book focuses mainly on the dog and how it has been the main vehicle for the virus, at least in the perceived notions of mankind. In fact bats may be more to blame, as is credited briefly in the book, but since the nonfiction piece focuses on the culture and society’s outlook on the disease, it focuses more on canines than anything else. I was intrigued by some of the history with the dog and legends.

There’s a lot tied into Greek mythology and the history of the dog and hellhounds, as well as the original treatment processes for the misunderstood disease. They’re put inside creatively named chapters such as “The Middle Rages.” ‘In the Beginning’ was the first part after the fascinating intro. From Ayurveda, which I always found interesting, makes me inclined to believe they were more on the right track in ancient times than others. Some of the treatments were just awful. Reading these chapters brought to mind my courses in humanities last year.

Celsus’ recommendation at the end of the chapter? *Shudders* The poor people were already suffering from rabies, I’m sure this made it a much worse death!

“If he cannot swim, let him sink under and drink, then lift him out; if he can swim, push him under at intervals so that he drinks his fill of water even against his will; for so his thirst and dread of water are removed at the same time.”

“If this proto-waterboarding happens to spur muscle spasms in the subject, Celsus recommends he be “taken straight from the tank and submerged into a bath of hot oil.”


Mythology continues awhile, and while I found the information about the origin of rage and name derivations like lycos and rage intriguing, I was especially wanting more information on the cultural invention of vampires and shapeshifters.

I’ve read some information in personal studies on how rabies influenced these legends, but I don’t think the authors fully explored this as much as they could have. It seems they strangely skirted over this a little. Why, I don’t know.

When I did a week doing different posts on Edgar Allen Poe for The Paperback Stash, I came to the conclusion that he may have died from rabies, but more likely from the political corruption of that time. I appreciate the authors putting in the theory he died from this disease and the evidence supporting the theory.

King Louis was best chapter of the book, its crowning glory. I already had such respect for the man but this chapter gives even more indepth details into his life and how much he accomplished. Fascinating, a true hero in the sense of the word. Not only for his accomplishments, but for his courage in those times to try unconventional methods. Pasteur was definitely a genius ahead of his time and I’m glad his colleagues got him out of the duel an opponent that took issue with his methods proposed. If he had died in a senseless fight, the immunology methods he nursed, the rabies treatments, may have been delayed by countless years.

The methods researchers had to employ before are sobering: several men held the rabid dog down while another extracted saliva from its reaching, snarling snout. If they were bit, they were shot instantly. Yikes!

I found it hauntingly sad how it played out and was written about the first human he saved, the small child the village saved up for and sent his way to be rescued. He waited by the bedside of Joseph Meister by night, worried he would die despite his intentions, overjoyed when he was saved. When his treatments worked and through the years he met more success, Pasteur created clinics and research facilities. As an adult, Meister was one of the first to donate, and one of the most sizable contributions.

Meister is such a success, but meets a sad end that’s written strangely on pg. 148:

“Pasteur’s remains were interred not in the Pantheon but instead, according to his family’s wishes, in a specially appointed crypt beneath the Institut Pasteur. There, fifteen years later, his wife, Marie, would be laid to rest also. Mosaics depicting Pasteur’s research triumphs watched over the tombs – and so did Joseph Meister, who, years after being the first to be vaccinated against the horror of rabies, became the concierge of the institute. When the Nazis, on occupying Paris, attempted to visit the Pasteur crypt in 1940, Meister bravely refused to unlock the gate for them. Soon after this discouraging event, he took his own life.”

The chapter for King Louis showed the scientific establishment against him, even when his vaccinations took off. The coma induced attempts and trials by Dr. Rodney Willoughby when discussed modern day survivors hints that more exploration should be given in researching if his theories are correct. There was a lot of hope, but still over six years later he never got the research money and not enough funding has been supplied elsewhere to explore the theory for treatment. The chapter Island of the Mad Dogs explores how Bali, previous rabies free, became alarmingly busy with rabies through one dog spreading it swiftly. There it was a struggle to encourage the government to vaccinate rather than actively and savagely destroy the dogs.

These all show one thing – much of the fight against the disease is delayed by human ignorance. Not only in Louis Pasteur’s personal battles with the hostile community of his day, but even with the proposed treatments of the 90’s. Only continued persistence from Janice Girardi (and maybe fueled in part by outraged protests from animal groups) encouraged Bali to begin vaccinating island wide.

The conclusion makes a cool point I didn’t know – that rabies is now being seen as one possible way to break the blood-brain barrier. This has always been a frustrating barrier preventing treatments for certain ailments, and there are only limited theories of how to break it. Isolating certain components in rabies may be used to develop a way to get into the system in a way that actually reaches the brain in the way it needs the treatment, making the brain barrier cease to exist for these stubborn ailments.

Whether this will ever be developed and whether it will work remains to be seen. It could be a major medical breakthrough. It has already been shown to work in mice by delivering large amounts of an Anti-Alzheimer’s RNAi to their brains.

As the book notes, it would be a wonderful irony to take the disease that has destroyed so many minds of man in the past and use it to save the minds of many in the future. Of course my silly mind thought of zombies stories and planet of the ape sequels coming to life with this theory too!



Overall an excellent book I’m so happy I picked up. I took away a star because I felt some of the cultural explorations were a little lacking and some too explored, and even if it’s a cultural history, I’d still have enjoyed further exploration about the mechanics of the virus itself. I guess that will be learned by picking up another book on the subject.

The book takes this modern chapter’s hope to end with a beautiful note going back into its starting point with mythology on page 236: “One is reminded of Orpheus, who, in search of his dead love Eurydice, employed his beautiful music to retrieve her from the underworld. ‘Cerberus stood agape,’ records the poet, ‘and his triple jaws forgot to bark.’
( )
  ErinPaperbackstash | Jun 14, 2016 |
This was really an engaging non-fiction! I loved the Louis Pasteur section in particular. ( )
  Caitlin70433 | Jun 6, 2016 |
Rabies is a terrifying illness that lurks in the far recesses of our self-conscience. Wasik and Murphy do an admirable job of explaining its origins, history, prevention, lethal result for animals, and occasional cure for humans. If you own a cat or a dog, you need to read this book. ( )
  ShelleyAlberta | Jun 4, 2016 |
Overall, a good book. The parts about vampires and werewolves felt like fluff, but the parts about Louis Pastor and how he discovered the vaccine were fascinating. ( )
  Traciinaz | Mar 17, 2016 |
Not quite what I imagined it to be, but not, having read it, I don't know why I expected something different. It did what it's title said it would do: looked at rabies from a cultural perspective. I guess I was thinking there would be more on the influence rabies had on the supernatural vampires and werewolves. There was a whole chapter dedicated to this, so it worked out. Interesting topic, and not one that I've given this much thought too before. It's a good eye opener for a topic that a lot of people don't know enough about. And it's something that should be more wide-spread knowledge. It's one of those diseases that we could eradicate if enough people were just informed and educated on the topic. In that regard, this a great book to do that. ( )
  Kassilem | Feb 4, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bill Wasikprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Murphy, Monicamain authorall editionsconfirmed
Heller, JohnnyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For more than a week, Achilles sulks while the Trojan War carries on without him.
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Rabid bites meant death
Until heroic people
Made discoveries

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Charts the history, science, and cultural mythology of rabies, documenting how before its vaccine the disease caused fatal brain infections and sparked the creations of monsters, including werewolves, vampires and zombies.

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