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Rats, Lice and History (Social Science Classics Series) Revised Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1412806725
ISBN-10: 1412806720
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Editorial Reviews


"Zinsser's 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.....Zinnser'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 Napolean's Grand Armée back from Moscow."

—Gerald Weissmann, Emerging Infectious Diseases

"This book... is listed among the best sellers. The style is delightful, and the subject matter very interesting... [It gives an] account of man's defeats and victories against epidemics... Those who have read Dr. Zinsser's articles will enjoy this book, and to otehrs it will be a pleasant surprise."

—Elizabeth Hard, The American Journal of Nursing

"No one who buys this book will feel cheated."

—H. M. Parshley, Nation

"This book will surely be studied with great interest by the lay reader... [I]t presents "a fascinating blend of scientific and historical research, humour, and stimulating opinion."

The British Medical Journal

“I had the fun of editing Hans’s book Rats, Lice and History, that unique account of what infectious diseases had done to change the fate of nations.”

—Edward Weeks, The Atlantic

About the Author

Hans Zinsser (1878-1940) received his doctorate at Columbia University and also was an instructor of bacteriology at Columbia University. Throughout his career he was also a professor at Stanford University as well as Harvard University. His scientific work focused on bacteriology and immunology and he is greatly associated with Brill's disease as well as typhus.

Gerald N. Grob is the Henry E. Sigerist Professor of the History of Medicine (emeritus) at Rutgers University. He is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and has been the president of the American Association for the History of Medicine. He is the author of The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America and, most recently, (with Howard H. Goldman) The Dilemma of Federal Mental Health Policy: Radical Reform or Incremental Change?


Product Details

  • Series: Social Science Classics Series
  • Paperback: 332 pages
  • Publisher: Transaction Publishers; Revised edition (October 31, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1412806720
  • ISBN-13: 978-1412806725
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #554,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The copy of "Rats, Lice, and History" that I own was published in 1963, and this was the 33rd time it had been reissued since first appearing in 1934. I can't imagine Dr. Zinsser's grumpily discursive, masterfully written, and ultimately profound biography of typhus fever ever going completely out of print. Stylistically the only work I can compare it to is Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Where Gibbon occasionally dipped his pen in vinegar and excoriated the Christians, Zinsser dips his pen in hydrochloric acid and savages all of the quaint human customs that have kept Typhus alive and thriving. He shows much more affectionate sympathy for the louse than he does for the General or the Politician. Witness:
"The louse shares with us the misfortune of being prey to the typhus virus. If lice can dread, the nightmare of their lives is the fear of some day inhabiting an infected rat or human being. For the host may survive; but the ill-starred louse that sticks his haustellum through an infected skin, and imbibes the loathsome virus with his nourishment, is doomed beyond succor. In eight days he sickens, in ten days he is 'in extremis', on the eleventh or twelfth his tiny body turns red with blood extravasated from his bowel, and he gives up his little ghost."
In the interests of research, Zinsser carried pill boxes of lice under his socks for weeks at a time before taking "advantage of them for scientific purposes." He is not able to tear himself away from these little creatures and address the true subject of his biography, i.e. the typhus virus, until Chapter 12!
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Format: Paperback
First let me say that after you read this book, you should then read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which is its logical successor.
Second: this book was written in the 1930's. This is before much of what we know about modern antibiotics was discovered - but that's one of the reasons you should read it: a reminder of just how recent modern medicine is, and how much power disease still has over us. This book is a stark reminder of how much hygiene has done to lengthen our lifespan, too - improving water supplies and eliminating rats from most households has done as much or more to extend the human lifespan as all the antibiotics we've invented.
Zinsser's list of what historical battles would have ended completely differently had not epidemic disease swept through one or another army is also chilling reading. Much of what we think of as inevitable human superiority was actually the work of bacteria, who didn't really care about our affairs. But despite the gloomy topic, as my title says, this book is the most fun you can possibly have while reading about epidemics. His humor is dry and biting - the deadpan recital of damages here, of misguided so-called scientists there... the editorial review above gives a couple such examples. The entire book is a fascinating read.
Some of the writing assumes that all readers were educated under an aristocratic university system, so that there are bits thrown in in Latin and Greek, not to mention French and other modern languages. The book can be read despite those, however. It might be tough going for high school students or even university undergrads, but would be a terrific addition to a history research paper, worth the slog for anyone willing to try it. And for those who have medicine and/or biology as an amateur interest, this is must reading.
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Format: Hardcover
I'd read this maybe 30 years ago and thought it was great then (I was about 15, so it's readable for younger people). It has survived the test of time. Readers have to remember that this was one of the first books written by a scientist for a lay audience, and that such "slumming" by scientists was looked down on by colleagues (an attitude that survived well into the '60s).
Sure, there are much better histories of plague & disease around now & obviously with more up to date information. Zinsser's book, though, is great for it's historical value--a window on a period when writers could drop greek and french phrases untranslated into their books and assume readers would know (irritating, yes, but I still enjoyed it). It also stands on it's own for the information, though I'd also read something more current for that.
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Format: Hardcover
The book is a private conversation between the reader and the author. Zinsser presents a whole world in his seemingly unrelated first chapters' musings, but lays the groundwork for understanding his view of a world laid to waste by a humble bacterium. I have loved this book for at least 25 years, and have loaned and lost any number of copies to dear thieving friends.
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Format: Paperback
Zinsser's book is hysterical (as well as an extraordinarily scholarly, lucid and well-written) review of plagues through history. It is also extremely interesting from the standpoint of science, as Zinsser speculates on certain bacteria and epidemiologies IN 1934. Zinsser's probably politically-incorrect comments about how No Wonder There Is So Much Jew-Baiting - The Hebrew God was a Particularly Vicious and Vengeful Deity Who Went About Smiting Enemies of the Jews in the Hinder Regions, and the Jews Weren't Such Lilies In Their Dealings With Others Anyway (my paraphrase, mostly, the "they weren't such lilies" is a direct quote) was, well, really funny. Zinsser's whole irreverant and chatty tone about such a deadly topic makes this book such a good read. He's also delightfully snotty sometimes ("saprophyte" is identified by a footnote, the text of which reads: "if the reader does not know what this means, then that is too bad."). The whole first quarter of the book, in which he debates with a literary colleague his right to write a "biography" of a disease is wonderful - an argument over whether artists should write about science and whether scientists should profess to know enough about the humanities to write "literature." When he discusses some of Kepler's erroneous assumptions about spontaneous generation - in a long, serious historical account on the evolution of "origin of life" theories, he adds a comment in the footnotes that reads: "It is to Kepler's credit, however, that - although one of the most eminent physicists of all time - he never wrote a book on God and the Universe."

I think there's be a lot more people in Science if Zinsser had written a major's intro bio text. Good heavens! What would he have had to say about DNA?? Oh, and the history of typhus (the main point of the book) is excellent, too. This has got to be one of the most delightful reads in microbiology.
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