Why Rats, Lice and History is a great book

April 7, 2008

Gerald Weissman wrote a solid review of Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice and History in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The review appeared two years ago, but I just found it.

It’s hard nowadays to reread the work of de Kruif or Sinclair Lewis without a chuckle or two over their quaint locution, but Zinsser’s raffiné account of lice and men remains a delight. Written in 1935 as a latter-day variation on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Zinsser’s book gives a picaresque account of how the history of the world has been shaped by epidemics of louseborne typhus. He sounded a tocsin against microbes in the days before antibiotics, and his challenge remains meaningful today: “Infectious disease is one of the few genuine adventures left in the world. The dragons are all dead and the lance grows rusty in the chimney corner. . . . About the only sporting proposition that remains unimpaired by the relentless domestication of a once free-living human species is the war against those ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and waylay us in our food and drink and even in our love”

If you’ve not read Zinsser’s book, this review will give you lots of reasons why you should.  They don’t write history like this for high schools, though they should:

Despite the unwieldy subtitle “Being a study in biography, which, after twelve preliminary chapters indispensable for the preparation of the lay reader, deals with the life history of TYPHUS FEVER,” Rats, Lice and History became an international critical and commercial success. Zinsser’s romp through the ancient and modern worlds describes how epidemics devastated the Byzantines under Justinian, put Charles V atop the Holy Roman Empire, stopped the Turks at the Carpathians, and turned Napoleon’s Grand Armée back from Moscow. He explains how the louse, the ubiquitous vector of typhus, was for most of human history an inevitable part of existence, “like baptism, or smallpox”; its habitat extended from hovel to throne. And after that Murder in the Cathedral, the vectors deserted Thomas à Becket: “The archbishop was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of the twenty-ninth of December [1170]. The body lay in the Cathedral all night, and was prepared for burial on the following day…. He had on a large brown mantle; under it, a white surplice; below that, a lamb’s-wool coat; then another woolen coat; and a third woolen coat below this; under this, there was the black, cowled robe of the Benedictine Order; under this, a shirt; and next to the body a curious hair-cloth, covered with linen. As the body grew cold, the vermin that were living in this multiple covering started to crawl out, and, as … the chronicler quoted, ‘The vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron, and the onlookers burst into alternate weeping and laughter …'”

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