Friday, October 05, 2007

Hans Zinsser – Rats, Lice and History

Throughout history, on hundreds of occasions, various epidemics decimated the human populations. On many of these occasions the dead have remained uncounted, entire villages and towns have been emptied and very occasionally, the course of history has been changed.

We have become used to the type of history book that focuses on one particular commodity, material or scientific discovery and declaims how it has “changed the world”. In contemporary times, perhaps the first to do this was Longitude, Dava Sobel’s work that examined how the ability to measure distance at sea fundamentally transformed man’s ability to trade and wage war, and thus altered history. Since then, we have seen books claiming that their subject matter is singularly responsible for changing the world. Mark Kurlansky’s books Salt and Cod spring to mind, but there are others, and sooner or later some enterprising author will no doubt write 200 pages on the historical importance of “Dust”. But I digress.

However, many years ago, Hans Zinsser had a similar idea. In 1934, this scientist decided to write a long book which, amongst other things, touched on the shaping of history by Rats and Lice (in particular through their ability to carry and pass on diseases such as Typhus). Zinsser describes his work as a biography of Typhus. But Zinsser is far from a scientist who is limited by his scientific subject. The book starts with a gentle discussion of the ability of scientists to discuss subjects not related to science. It’s an important discussion – should scientists touch the realms of history for instance. Zinsser concludes that they both should and must and energetically goes about doing so, quoting such literary greats as Joyce, Shelley and Eliot along the way.

Zinsser’s style is a wonderful blend of poetic writing and simple science. But he is also very funny. At one point a footnote to the word “saprophyte” tells us that “if the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad” [1].

To understand the history of Typhus we need to learn a little about the spread of disease, how certain diseases love the dirty cramped conditions of human existence and how the medicines that fight them work. We learn also how humans can get disease from animals, and how animals (or insects) can carry these diseases, but not succumb. We also learn how terrible an epidemic really is. This book was written shortly after millions died in the First World War. Millions more died in the great influenza epidemics that followed that conflict.

More interestingly the non-biologist like myself learns that diseases like Typhus have a history of themselves and Zinsser, in those pre-DNA testing times shows us how scientists can show that the disease had evolved down different paths. The different variants having different effects, and different victims. Part of this discussion looks at epidemics in history and Zinsser examines the evidence for whether certain mass deaths described by Pliny or other ancient historians can be attributed to various “modern” diseases.

This is a fabulous work. Science as it should be written, by an author who clearly didn’t think that one should never stray from one’s area of special understanding. But one who also believed that knowledge was important to combat disease. I’ll leave the last words to Zinsser himself:
About the only genuine 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 the 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.
[1] The Chambers Scientific and Technological Dictionary actually defines it as “an organism living heterotrophically [2] and osmotrophically on dead organic matter”

[2] if the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster at Our Door - The Global Threat of Avian Flu
Wallace - Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History


Anonymous said...

You are aware that Jared Diamond's work makes the enjoyable RLH obsolete as science, though still good literature? Modern genetic knowledge changed everything. You'll like Diamond.

Resolute Reader said...

I am well aware of Jared Diamond's work... though I think his earlier book "Guns, Germs and Steel" is far better than "Collapse". You can find an extended review I did of Collapse here

I think that one of the reasons that RLH is so enjoyable, is that the book lays the basis for looking at the material conditions that lay a basis of history. As a work of science it is undoubtably dated. Though having said that, it certainly is a inspiriing way of writing science and getting across basic ideas across to non-scientists.

Anonymous said...

Good literature- okay, I will give Zinsser that. However, good literature for the 1930's! Outdated for todays standards. My overall take on this book is as follows: Zinsser had a bit of free time on his hands, wanted to feed his own ego by putting his knowledge of past scientists onto the leaves of this book!