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Howdy. We've moved from Cayce, but St. Elizabeth of South Rose Hill or Lizette de Waccamaw de Sud just don't do it for me.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Rats, Lice and History

Welcome to Magister Myer's email buddies!

Lots of you have been landing here since Magister linked me to his newest sig. I'm the one he affectionately refers to as SWMBO ("she who must be obeyed.") Feel free to poke around a bit while you're here.
Now, back to our post on Rats, Lice and History:

I found a copy of this 1935 book by Hans Zinsser in a pile of books about to be thrown away at work. For several weeks, now, it's been my bedtime reading.

It's a biography (yes, a biography) of typhus. There's lots in there about how plagues affected the course of history even more than wars and governments. This is also one of those books written for an erudite audience, with extensive footnotes, often in German or French.

Chapter numbers are done in the "in which we..." style, exemplified by Chapter IV: On parasitism in general, on on the necessity of considering the changing nature of infectious diseases in the historical study of epidemics.

Commenters on Amazon seem to agree it's pretty dense, whereas one CDC writer uses the word "romp."

The title page gives a hint of what's to come:

Rats, Lice

So, why blog on this obscure book? Two reasons:
First, it has what must be the BEST FOOTNOTE EVER! on page 59. In a discussion of the development of parasitism, we read this sentence:
"To be sure, it has not -- so far-- been possible in the laboratory to convert a pure saprophyte(1) into an habitual parasite."
The footnote reads:
"If the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad."

Second, this book was just given as a secret Santa gift on ER to Abby, by another doctor who wanted to discuss with her "the relative unimportance of generals" to history.

Amazed, I turned to Izzy, who said "Well, you'll just have to blog on this one."

I'm just finishing Chapter IX--I'm sure Zinsser will eventually get around to discussion of typhus. Epidemiological tidbits thusfar include advantages of syphilis, theories of what exactly afflicted the Philistines when they stole the Ark of the Covenant, and reasons for the near-extinction of leprosy among Europeans and their descendents. It's just my kind of book--history and medical oddities.

Incidentally, the copy I have (24th printing) was donated in May 1955 to the SC State Board of Health upon the death of Walter Hane (his wife's obit is here), a sanitarian involved in the virtual eradication typhus fever in SC.


Gregory said...

Wow, I can't think of any other place in my life where I would have heard about this book. Thanks for the interesting post! Merry Christmas to you and Izzy.

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Great to hear from you. I'll pass along your greetngs to Izzy.