Rats, Lice & History – Hans Zinsser

Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice & History was written in 1934 as an explanation of one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments – the understanding and control of deadly infectious diseases, especially typhus. It was only in 1909 that Charles Nicolle identified lice as the means of transmission between humans. Subsequently the role of rats in the process of disease transmission came to be better understood. World War I added considerably to our knowledge of these diseases which had ravaged Europe in particular for centuries. Many of the great breakthroughs in our knowledge of these diseases came about as a result of a concerted international effort studying the impacts of the disease during WWI and the Russian revolution where 25 million people contracted typhus between 1917 and 1923 with 3 million dying as a result. The League of Nations helped to coordinate medical communications between the USSR, Germany and the western nations and great progress was made between 1928 and 1934 when the book was published – some of the scientific papers had not yet been published when the book was written.

Zinsser writes in an engaging not too technical style about a topic which really should form an essential part of any study of the longer term in history, and especially for economic and military historians. It is important that anyone postulating great themes in history should be aware that diseases themselves have histories. Rats were not known in Europe until the C12 when they arrived with returning crusaders from the Levant, a very early instance of blowback. These were black rats which were the predominant type until they were supplanted by the more aggressive brown rat in the C18. Medical historians in Zinsser’s time understood that typhus and the bubonic plague were not known in Europe prior to the arrival of the rat which aided the transmission of these diseases by sharing fleas and lice with humans. The Thirty Years War of 1618 -1648 is described as the most gigantic natural experiment in epidemiology to which mankind has ever been subjected. The war rolled back and forth across Europe bring first typhus and then plague in its wake.

Zinsser is tremendously impressed by the similarities between rats and humans – or should I just write man? Some of these are ferocity, omnivorousness, adaptability to all climates and irresponsible fecundity as a result of their continuous breeding cycle. “Man and rat are merely, so far, the most successful animals of prey. They are utterly destructive of other forms of life. … Gradually these two have spread across the earth, keeping pace with each other and unable to destroy each other, though continually hostile. They have wandered from East to West, driven by their physical needs, and – unlike any other species of living things – have made war on their own kind. … In both species the battle has been pitilessly to the strong. And the strong have been pitiless.”

Gradually the standard of housing and sanitation improved in Europe and rats became more domesticated, hence less likely to spread infection in the broader community. As well as this the human survivor populations gradually grew more resistant to the diseases which may also have somewhat moderated their effects in the course of their evolution. The parasite organism’s ideal life is a quiet bourgeois existence where it exists in harmony with the host body, just tapping it for the means of survival rather than killing it. During the C19 the infectious diseases were increasingly pushed to the wilder and less sanitary margins of Europe.

“But then a Grand Duke was murdered at Sarajevo and everybody lost their heads …. And God was on everyone’s side. And when we had all gone to war and the stage was set, typhus woke up again. Not everyone realizes that typhus has at least as just a reason to claim that it won the war as any of the contending nations.” Fortunately Zinsser and the medical researchers then did the scientific work to put typhus back in its box.

This marvellous little book tosses off ideas like a boy with a box of firecrackers.

Hey literature, What sort of Freudian diagnosis should we make of TS Eliot, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce? In fact should we trust the unscientific critics with Freudian analysis at all?

Hey theology – did Adam and Eve have lice? Why did God give them lice? Apparently this was a real debate back in the day.

Hey military history – are wars won by great strategy and planning or by dumb luck with water, sanitation and food supplies in military camps? See Napoleon and Hitler invading Russia for more details. Zinsser also supplies good data on death rates in the Crimean War – War 63k Disease 104k.

He also poses some interesting questions about historic turning points influenced by disease such as the defeat of Carthage at Syracuse in 296 BC when they could have controlled Sicily. Would that have helped them to beat back the Romans later that century?

Similarly were the Saxons only invited to Britain after the locals were laid low by epidemics in 444 AD?

And was the path prepared for the rise of Islam after 620 ( or year 1) by the Plagues of Justinian and the other epidemics and debacles of the Byzantine 6th century?

It is slightly intriguing that stupid ideas come back into vogue after the death of the people who fought with and defeated stupidity the last time around. No one would have dared called themselves a national socialist while there were still WWII veterans willing and able to knock sense into them with their walking canes. Similarly no goopy stupids would have “bravely” stood against vaccination if they had any knowledge of the world prior to effective vaccination and prevention of infectious diseases. Hans Zinsser would have been appalled but unsurprised. He thought we should look at history in cycles of 200 to 300 years.

Many years ago now CP Snow discerned the two cultures of science and of the humanities. Hans Zinsser was one capable of comfortably bridging the gap although he rejected the tag of popular science. Whatever it is – a biography of typhus with as many digressions as Tristram Shandy apparently, Rats, Lice & History is well worth seeking out, probably in a second hand bookstore.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
This entry was posted in Books, Disease, European history, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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