It seemed like an appropriate thing to read, as it had to deal with sickness and it was the kind of boring subject that is pleasant to read when one is stuck in bed and going nowhere. The first several or so chapters are a defense for why a doctor should be able to write a work of literature. Zinsser calls science an art and goes on to quote much Gertude Stein in order to hold it up to ridicule. The next quarter or even more is then dedicated to wars and disease and destruction from the dawn of civilization onward.
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Although he had published under a pseudonym, virtually all of his previous writings had dealt with infections and immunity and had appeared either in medical and scientific journals or in book format. Today he is best remembered as the author of Rats, Lice, and History, which gone through multiple editions and remains a masterpiece of science writing for a general readership.
To Zinsser, scientific research was high adventure and the investigation of infectious disease, a field of battle. Yet at the same time he maintained a love of literature and philosophy. His goal in Rats, Lice and History was to bring science, philosophy, and literature together to establish the importance of disease, and especially epidemic infectious disease, as a major force in human affairs.
Zinsser cast his work as the "biography" of a disease. In his view, infectious disease simply represented an attempt of a living organism to survive. From a human perspective, an invading pathogen was abnormal; from the perspective of the pathogen it was perfectly normal. This book is devoted to a discussion of the biology of typhus and history of typhus fever in human affairs.
Zinsser begins by pointing out that the louse was the constant companion of human beings. Under certain conditions—to wash or to change clothing—lice proliferated. The typhus pathogen was transmitted by rat fleas to human beings, who then transmitted it to other humans and in some strains from human to human. Rats, Lice and History is a tour de force.
Rats Lice And History
Zinsser frames the book as a biography of the infectious disease, tracing its path through history. An important theme of the book is the according to Zinsser, underappreciated effect infectious diseases such as typhus had on the course of history, a topic which would later be treated in other popular works such as Plagues and Peoples and Guns, Germs and Steel. Summary[ edit ] The book is divided into sixteen chapters. The first two thirds of the work provide background information on topics such as: Scientific concepts and definitions e. Chapter III: Leading up to the definition of bacteria and other parasites, and digressing briefly into the question of the origin of life, Chapter IV: On parasitism in general, and on the necessity of considering the changing nature of infectious diseases in the historical study of epidemics Diseases of the ancient world chapter VI and their effect on political and military history chapters VII and VIII The important vectors of typhus mentioned in the title, rats and lice chapters IX through XI Having received a classical education that emphasized liberal arts  , Zinsser refers to a number of classical works throughout the text, occasionally quoting passages in Latin , French , and German without translation. Reception[ edit ] Rats, Lice and History received an overwhelmingly positive critical reception on its release. Duffus wrote that "Dr.