Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: "Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus" by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

I know what you're thinking. "Wesley, why are you reading a book about RABIES?" and I'd be like "Dear reader, if I had been born with a different brain I would have loved to be a scientist. But instead I have this wonderful brain that remembers Shakespeare, airport codes, and names of books I read years ago, but not the parts of a plant cell or the parts of the brain". So the way I make up for not being a scientist to read books about cholera and smallpox and apparently rabies.

But here's the thing. This book was so interesting! I kept telling my family little interesting tidbits of the book, ignoring their looks that said "oh my gosh, please less talk about mouth frothy animals during brunch".

Let's just real fast talk about what rabies is like for a human sufferer because it's really scary and awful. Rabies is a virus that works it's way through the nervous system and up to the brain. One symptom is hydrophobia; victims are horrified of water, even just drinking water in a glass, and refuse to drink it even if they are horribly dehydrated. The throat spasms, so talking is made difficult, often talking is more like barking gasps. There's hallucinations.There's frothing at the mouth. There's aggression. The most unusual symptom (I thought) is that male victims can "exhibit hyper sexual behavior", including involuntary erections and ejaculation. It takes about a week to die.

So that's what we're dealing with here.

Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and many other ancient cultures knew about rabies and recorded their thoughts about it. In some of these cultures dogs were revered (like Egypt's Anubis). A Greek names Xenophon wrote extensively about what makes the perfect hound. He even provides a list of "ideal"names for your hound. They include: Spigot, Lance, Eyebright (that's an elf name, like Tolkein elf), Hebe, Tracks, Dash, Bloomer, Much, Riot and Sunbeam.

Neptune, my parent's dog who is over the Rainbow Bridge. Xenophon would have though her head was too wide but we thought that she was beautiful :)

So even if these people loved their hounds, some of them are still going to get rabies eventually. Here are some examples of cures, though there was general consensus that the victim was probably unable to be saved. "Insert into the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bit" is one, (aka "hair of the dog"). One suggestion was to kill the dog, and rub it's brain on the wound. (I'm sorry, no one is eating anything right now, right?) Let's just say all of the cures were gross, ineffective and potential harmful. Shudder! Victims in the middle ages would have been better off putting their faith in Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunters and rabies sufferers, then in any of these scary cures.

Obviously in the Middle Ages most people thought that rabid dogs were possessed by demons. (Which, I don't really blame them because rabid dogs are very scary sounding.) Apparently though, in a lot of wood cuts from that time when people are talking about possessed dogs they are almost always portrayed as poodles. Which is hilarious to me. Sorry if you have a demon dog, I mean poodle.

Rapid fire facts:

-Rabies in literature has quite the spread: Old Yeller (sob), To Kill a Mockingbird, The Professor, Beloved,Cujo and more!

-Almost all bites these days come from bats.

-It's (still) pretty rare to survive rabies without getting the need shots very quickly after the bite. Though one successful survival happened at a hospital practically in my backyard here in Wisconsin.

I loved this book. Scary and interesting and full of things I'd never even remotely heard of before. Goodreads and their random recommendations hits a home run for me again, bless their souls. 4 out of 5 stars! If this gives you nightmares feel free to yell at me on twitter or in the comments, I can take it. :)



  1. I love books with lots of fun facts! I'm also TAing a class about the biology of infectious disease this semester and it's made me want to read more nonfiction about different diseases. They're scary, but also fascinating!

    1. I'd love to be in that class! I would be the worst academically out of everyone but I'd make up for it in enthusiasm! I'll keep my eyes for interesting disease books for the both of us :)


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