Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

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9781470826437: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

This is an engrossing and lively history of a fearsome and mythologized virus.

In the tradition of The Emperor of All Maladies and The Great Influenza, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy chart the history, science, and cultural mythology of rabies. In the absence of vaccination as was true up until the late nineteenth century the rabies virus caused brain infections with a nearly 100 percent fatality rate, both in animals and in humans, and the suffering it inflicted became the stuff of legend.

The transmission of the virus often from dog to man reawakened a primal fear of wild animals, and the illness violent symptoms spoke directly to mankind's fear of the beast within. The cultural response was to create fictional embodiments of those anxieties ravenous wolfmen, bloodsucking vampires, and armies of mindless zombies.

From the myth of Actaeon to Saint Hubert, from the laboratories of the heroic and pioneering Louis Pasteur to a journalistic investigation into the madness that has gripped modern-day Bali, Rabid is a fresh, fascinating, and often wildly entertaining look at one of the world's most misunderstood viruses.

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About the Author :

BILL WASIK is a senior editor at Wired magazine and was previously a senior editor at Harper's, where he wrote on culture, media, and politics. He is the editor of the anthology Submersion Journalism and has also written for the Oxford American, Slate, Salon, and McSweeney's.

MONICA MURPHY holds degrees in public health from Johns Hopkins University and veterinary medicine from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Oakland, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :


Ours is a domesticated age. As civilization has advanced over the march of millennia, humans have assiduously stripped the animal kingdom of its armies, decommissioned its officers. Some erstwhile adversaries we have hunted to extinction, or nearly so. Others we confine to zoos, to child-friendly safari parks. The balance we shunt to the margins as we clear their land for ourselves—erecting our own sprawling habitats on the ruins of theirs, naming our cul-de-sacs for whatever wilderness we dozed to pave them.

Peer through news reports, though, and one can find pockets of resistance, as if some ancient animal essence were periodically reawakening. Consider the bobcat in Cottonwood, Arizona, that set out on a rampage one recent March evening, menacing a worker outside a Pizza Hut and then sauntering into a bar, sending patrons onto the pool table, mauling the one who dared to snap a picture on his phone. Or the furious otter in Vero Beach, Florida, at a waterfront golf community called Grand Harbor (a “gated enclave,” brags its website, “for those seeking the ultimate resort-at-home lifestyle”), that gnawed three residents, one of them while out on the links. Or the enraged beaver at the Loch Raven Reservoir, in the genteel exurban sprawl north of Baltimore, that cruelly interrupted the summertime reverie of four swimmers, a nightmare that ended only when the husband of one pulled the beaver from his wife’s upper thigh and smashed it with a rock.

Typically these creatures will shun the society of humans. But in an instant we can find them transformed into bewilderingly avid attackers, accosting us as we retrieve our mail or walk our dogs, sometimes even carrying out a home invasion. A particularly harrowing tale comes to us from the Adirondack hamlet of Lake George, N.Y. On an April evening just a few years ago, a young couple was walking from their car when they were set upon by a gray fox. The two managed to rush inside their home and close the door. But nearly a half hour later, when they opened the door again, the fox lay in wait; it sprinted toward the opening; only quick reflexes allowed the young man to close it just as the creature’s snout broached the threshold. When an animal control officer arrived, the fox attacked his SUV, repeatedly sinking its teeth into his tires. He shot at it multiple times from out his driver’s side window, but failed to hit his mark. Later, after the officer had finally run the fox over, he told a reporter that it was the single most aggressive foe he had encountered in nine years on the job. “This was a four- or five-pound animal attacking a 3,000-pound vehicle,” he said.

The sheer tenacity: that is the truly chilling element in all these tales. “What disturbs me,” remarked one Connecticut man to the local news, regarding the raccoon he had lately beaten to death with a hammer, “is I smashed his mouth off, I smashed his teeth in, but he still wanted to continue in the attack mode. I was actually terrified at the resilience of this animal.” In Pittsfield, Mass., on a sleepy street backing up to the Housatonic River, a fox attacked twice in an eight-hour span. In the first incident, one neighbor struck the fox multiple times with the lid to his barbecue smoker. Yet still the fox returned earlier the next morning, biting the girl next door; it took twenty minutes for the man and her sister to pry the fox off her leg, before the man could knock the fox unconscious and then choke it to extinction.

One victim in Putnam County, New York, survived her own interminable ordeal with a raccoon, which assaulted her at the end of her half-mile-long driveway. She held down the snarling beast while she tried to free her cellphone to call the house; eventually, her husband and son had to club the raccoon repeatedly with a tire iron before it died. (“I felt that nature had betrayed me,” she later told a reporter for the public-radio show This American Life.)Then there was the red fox in South Carolina that pursued a nine-year-old as he made his way to the school bus one morning. After an adult neighbor sheltered the boy in his house, the fox latched onto the good Samaritan’s foot. He flung the animal into his home office, where it flailed against the walls and windows before finally falling asleep on a dog bed.

Nearly any species can be afflicted. Arizona officials were recently called to the scene after a dog was attacked by a mad peccary, a pig-like creature whose residence in the southwest had until that point been considered largely peaceable. In Robbins, N.C., it was a skunk that beset the pet Pekinese of David Sanders, who was forced to watch the two creatures battle it out for the better part of an hour. (Sanders was unable to shoot the challenger, he explained, because all he had at hand was a shotgun.) In Decatur County, Ga., a donkey fell prey to the madness and bit its owner on the hand. In Imperial, Nebraska, the afflicted animal was literally a lamb, part of a child’s 4-H project gone terribly, almost Biblically awry. Some primeval force must truly be at work when the lamb can be made into a lion.


The agent of all these diabolical acts of possession is, of course, a virus. It is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans. Fittingly, the rabies virus is shaped like a bullet: a cylindrical shell of glycoproteins and lipids that carries, in its rounded tip, a malevolent payload of helical RNA. On entering a living thing, it eschews the bloodstream, the default route of most viruses but a path fraught with danger from immuno-protective sentries. Instead, like almost no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one to two centimeters per day (on average) through the axoplasm, the transmission lines that conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. Once inside the brain, the virus works slowly, diligently, fatally to warp the mind, suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal. Aggression rises to fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation is ratcheted up. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness—because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.

If this sounds like a horror movie, we should not be surprised, for it is a scenario bound up into our very concept of horror. 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.

Today, we understand that more than half our new diseases (60 percent, by a recent tally in Nature) are “zoonotic,” i.e. originating in animal populations, and our widespread fear of the worst of these (swine flu, AIDS, West Nile, Ebola) has been colored by our knowledge of their bestial origins. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that nothing has made humans sicker than our association with animals. Not only our emerging diseases today but the major killers throughout the ages—smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza—evolved from similar diseases in animals. This is what Jared Diamond has called “the lethal gift of livestock,” a major shaper of human destiny; the very fact that the agricultural lifestyle won out over that of the hunter-gatherer is due in part, Diamond argues, because the former “breathed out nastier germs.” Through their close contact with livestock, early farmers built up immunity to illnesses that would readily kill unexposed populations, a dynamic that still holds for emerging infectious diseases today.

Yet until the early twentieth century, humans had no idea that so many of its illnesses derived from animals. During those years when the most catastrophic zoonosis in history struck—the fourteenth-century Black Death, or bubonic plague, which spreads to humans via fleas living on the backs of rats and other rodents—scholars blamed nearly everything else, from demonic forces and bad air to astronomical happenings and even human malefactors. For centuries, rabies was the only illness in which the animalistic transfer, or more like a transformation, was clear. No microscope was required to see the possession take place. A mad animal bit; a mad man appeared; each would die a terrible death. The madness could lurk within any beast, even in—especially in—the most domesticated and loyal of all, the dog.

As the unique mode of animal to human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into animal metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. When Greek myth beholds Lycaon, king of Arcadia, as he transforms into a slavering wolf, his countenance is “rabid,” his jaws “bespluttered with foam.” In fifteenth-century Spain, witch-hunters called saludadores were reputed, also, as healers of rabies, a convergence that makes eminent sense given the widely-held association between witches and demonic canine familiars. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth century, Europe gestated two enduring legends whose part-human, part-animal malefactors bite their victims, thereby passing along their own degraded conditions—namely, the werewolf and the vampire, both of whom haunt the Western imagination to the present day. As Susan Sontag pointed out, even as late as the nineteenth century, when viruses were becoming well understood and a rabies vaccine lay just around the corner, the true source of the rabies panics in France was not the fatality of the disease but rather the “fantasy”—though one might accurately say the fact—“that infection transformed people into maddened animals.”

Paradoxically, during the twentieth century, after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today, many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a footlong syringe into the stomach. (It’s four shots, for the record, and not particularly deep in the arm.) Even as vaccination of dogs in the United States was reducing the infection rate in that species down to negligible levels, a generation of children learned to scrutinize their pet pooches for the slightest signs of madness, largely thanks to the malign influence of Old Yeller, a Walt Disney film about a frontier-era boy who falls in love with a yellow dog that becomes rabid. Twenty-five years later, a novel called Cujo (and its subsequent film adaptation) taught a whole new generation to fear rabies, albeit a bit more forthrightly: no one finished the book or left the theater surprised by what became of that nice dog.

It’s almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror, even as it still terrifies us in the present day. Lately, TV comedians have taken to seizing on it for a laugh: two animated series created by Mike Judge, King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-head, have both done episodes on rabies, as did the long-running medical comedy Scrubs. In the U.S. version of The Office, Michael Scott (the bumbling boss played by Steve Carell), tries to paper over the fact that he has hit an employee with her car by organizing a charity “race for the cure.” The disease he chooses is rabies. The boss soon becomes perplexed at how few donations are forthcoming:

Michael Scott: I was also hoping to hand the giant check to a rabies doctor. How’s that going?

Pam Beesly: Not well. A doctor won’t come out to collect a check for 700 dollars. Or 500 dollars, if we go with the giant check. And also, there is no such thing as a rabies doctor.


Contrary to what your television may have told you, there are most assuredly still rabies doctors, and humans still die in the tens of thousands from the disease (55,000, in the latest estimate)—just not usually in the United States, or in Western Europe. The dead hail overwhelmingly from Asia and Africa, from countries where vaccination is too expensive or too difficult to procure. And the course of their suffering is every bit as grim, and as inevitably fatal, as the course endured by victims throughout the millennia.

Indeed, other than the wide availability of painkillers, which can help stifle the final agonies of the disease, the sequence of horrors faced by a rabies patient today is hardly different from those experienced by the man who was probably the most eminent rabies victim in history: Charles Lennox, Fourth Duke of Richmond, who for the two years leading up to his death in 1819 served as Governor-General of Canada, the top post in what was then still a colonial government. The Duke was a famous lover of dogs; a portrait of Lennox as a boy shows the young nobleman reclining against a tree stump as an adoring spaniel paws at his finery. Ironically, it was not a dog but rather a fox, the ostensibly tame pet of a solider whose garrison the Duke had occasion to inspect in Quebec, whose jaws were to blame for his demise. When the fox tangled with his own dog—Blucher, so named in honor of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the Prussian general who had recently bested Napoleon at Waterloo—Lennox stepped in to separate them. The mad fox seized this chance to insult the visiting head of state, chomping down hard on the base of his thumb.

After a bite, the rabies virus binds quickly into the peripheral nerves but then makes its course with almost impossible sloth, requiring usually at least three weeks and often as long as three months to arrive at and penetrate the brain; on rare occasions a full year, or even five years, can elapse before the onset of symptoms. During this time the wound will heal over, and the victim may even forget about his scrape with a snarling beast. But healed or no, as the virus enters the brain the wound will usually seem to return, as if by magic, with some odd sensation occurring at the site. This sensation can take many forms: stabbing pain, or numbness; burning, or unnatural cold; tingling, or itching, or even a tremor. At roughly the same time, these soon-to-be-doomed patients typically display general signs of influenza, with a fever and perhaps a sore throat or some mild nausea. In the case of the Duke of Richmond, it began one day with shoulder pains and a sore throat, then progressed the following day to insomnia and fatigue.

All this is merely prelude to the illness itself, whose most notable symptom in humans—unique, as far as physicians know, to rabies among all diseases —is a terrifying condition called hydrophobia. As the term suggests, hydrophobia is a fear of water, though the word “fear” does not do justice to the eerie and fully physical manner in which it manifests. Present the hydrophobic patient with a cup of water and, though he desperately wants to drink it, his entire body rebels against the consummation of this act. The outstretched arm jerks away just as it is about to bring the cup to the parched lips. Other times the entire body convulses at the thought. Just beholding the water can make the diaphragm involuntarily contract, causing patients to gag and retch. On YouTube one can find video from a 2007 sufferer in Vietnam, showing the travails of a middle-aged construction wor...

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Bill Wasik; Monica Murphy
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ISBN 10 : 1470826437 ISBN 13 : 9781470826437
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ISBN 10 : 1470826437 ISBN 13 : 9781470826437
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