Scary Read: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

RabidA tip o’ the hat to my friend Kate, who pointed me to a podcast about the most fascinating story in this already-fascinating book a couple months ago.

Rabid, by veterinarian Monica Murphy and her husband, Wired editor Bill Wasik, examines rabies from a cultural standpoint — but you probably got that much from the title. I went in with the my knowledge of rabies confined to that one episode of The Office, something about twenty shots in your stomach, and a settled dislike for raccoons.

Now on the other side, I’ve got a better handle on the whole subject. The rabies vaccine is only four shots in one’s arm, for one thing. And rabies is the most deadly virus identified, with 100% human mortality (as far as we know) if the disease goes untreated. And 55,000 people die from rabies every year. I guess it’s only a joke if you live in Scranton.

The best chapters in Rabid deal with Pasteur, who invented the rabies vaccine, and with human survivors of rabies, Jeanna Giese in particular (whose case is the subject of that podcast), and how an island community like Bali deals with a sudden outbreak of the disease.

Less mesmerizing are the book’s forays into literary subjects the authors associate with rabies (the bit about the Iliad is particularly unfortunate); the authors are much better equipped to deal with the scientific and veterinary aspects of the disease’s history. Based on the last three chapters alone, Rabid is worth a look. And you’ll definitely look twice the next time you see a raccoon. Or a skunk. Or a stray dog.

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9 thoughts on “Scary Read: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

  1. How odd that the book would digress into literary topics..? Anyway, scary stuff. In the last few months alone two of my friends (in different cities) had bat scares (found dead bats in their homes), and my son’s school had a raccoon scare.

    • It just seemed unnecessary when the science was so interesting!

      Also, here’s a bit that I loved but forgot to put in the review: The little boy who was the first person saved by Pasteur’s rabies vaccine (after being bitten but before the disease reached his brain) grew up and became the caretaker at Pasteur’s institute, where Pasteur and his wife were eventually buried. When the Nazis occupied Paris, they wanted to be let in, but he refused to allow them past the door.

      Sadly, he killed himself just a few years later, before the end of the war. But what courage that must have taken!

      • Wow, that’s an amazing story (though also sad). I was never good in science but there are so many amazing stories surrounding science. I really felt that after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and also Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (a children’s book). I haven’t read too many science books but am always open to good recommendations and good titles!

      • I’m not very knowledgable about science, but my PhD research (I didn’t finish) was on medicine and lit, so I like dabbling here and there. I’ve heard so many good things about Henrietta Lacks — I really ought to put it on my to-read list.

      • Oh, that’s an interesting (and unusual?) focus. (I love it…it was my childhood dream to be a doctor until I realized in high school that I couldn’t deal with blood and dead bodies…) Yes, I definitely recommend Henrietta Lacks! That reminds me I should write a post about it…I read it this year but somehow missed posting about it.

  2. Pingback: Recommended Reading, Bonus Round: The Lost City of Z, by David Grann | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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