A History of Rabies

A History of Rabies

A History of Rabies

Fielding D. O’Niell, DVM, MS

For thousands of years, rabies has terrified civilizations ever since it became obvious that the bite of a rabid animal insured an inevitably horrible death. The origin of the word rabies is either from the Sanskrit "rabhas" (to do violence) or the Latin "rabere" (to rage). The ancient Greeks called rabies "lyssa" (violence). Today, the virus causing rabies is classified in the genus Lyssa Virus".

In India, 3000 B.C., the god of death was attended by a dog as the emissary of death. In modern day India, rabid dogs still cause the death of 20,000 people each year. The first written record of rabies causing death in dogs and humans is found in the Mosaic Esmuna Code of Babylon in 2300 B.C. where Babylonians had to pay a fine if their dog transmitted rabies to another person.

In the first century A.D., the Roman scholar Celsus correctly suggested that rabies was transmitted by the saliva of the biting animal. He incorrectly suggested a cure for rabies by holding the victim under water. Those that didn't drown died of rabies. Other barbaric cures for rabies included burning the wounds with a hot poker and a "hair-of-the-dog".Homeopathic medicine invokes the use of "similars", i.e. like cures like. Hairs of the rabid dog were laid on the wound or ingested by the patient. While a hair-of-the-dog may cure a hangover, it did nothing to cure rabies.

The most interesting cure for rabies involved the use of madstones in 18th century America. Madstones are calcified hairballs found in the stomachs of ruminants such as cows, goats and deer. They were thought to have curative powers by drawing the madness out of the bite wound. Madstones were highly prized as more valuable than rubies and were passed down through generations as "family jewels". In 1805, a madstone sold for $2000 in Essex County, Virginia. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have transported his son, Robert, from Springfield, Illinois to Terre Haute, Indiana for madstone treatment in 1849 after being bitten by a rabid dog. Robert survived.

That same year, after proposing to his childhood sweetheart, Edgar Allen Poe left Richmond, Virginia on a train bound for New York City. Six days later he was mysteriously found lying in the street outside Ryan's Saloon in Baltimore, Maryland. It was assumed this lifelong alcoholic was suffering delirium tremons but when offered alcohol he refused it and when offered water he had great difficulty swallowing it. Poe's physician, Dr. Joseph Moran, writes that Poe slipped in and out of a coma, had hallucinations and alternated between periods of extreme aggression and periods of perfect lucidity. He finally slipped into a coma and died four days later. These are the classic symptoms of rabies. Poe's body showed no sign of bite wounds but fewer than one third of human rabies victims show evidence of bite wounds.

The first real treatment for rabies came in the 1880's. A French chemistry teacher named Louis Pasteur was dabbling with chicken cholera when he noticed that virulent cultures exposed to the elements no longer caused disease. He also noted that chickens given this weakened or "attenuated strain" were immune to inoculation with fresh, virulent cultures. Pasteur next tried an attenuated vaccine against anthrax in cattle. It worked! He then turned his attention to rabies, the scourge of the world. His initial animal studies were very promising, but Pasteur wanted more time to purify his attenuated vaccine before trying it on himself.

On July 6, 1885, a 9 year old boy named Joseph Meister was mauled by a rabid dog. A local doctor treated the wounds and told the family that the only person who could save Joseph was Louis Pasteur. After much pleading, Pasteur agreed only after consulting with a couple of real doctors who said Joseph was a "dead boy walking". Joseph received 13 inoculations in 11 days and made a complete recovery. The word leaked out and patients came streaming in the world over. At the time of Pasteur's death 9 years later, over 20,000 people had been given his post-exposure prophylactic vaccine.\

Today in the U.S. many (but not all) of our pets are vaccinated against rabies. We all remember Cujo and Old Yeller, but cats now outrank dogs in the number of domestic rabies cases. Many people still don't think cats need rabies vaccinations. Wild animal rabies mostly involves raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats with bats being the most dangerous since rabid bats rarely look sick and they can sneak in through very narrow spaces day and night to expose us and our pets.

I don't have the space to tell all the horror tales I've heard. I'll just share two: 1) A rabid bat flew down a chimney and bit the unvaccinated indoor housecat. The cat bit the 12 year old girl in the house. The bat, the cat and the girl all died. 2) A friend called me hysterically one Sunday. A raccoon (later proved rabid) broke through her screen door and attacked her four indoor cats, none of whom had ever had a rabies vaccine. All four of her cats had to be destroyed. Suffice it to say that many have died, been destroyed or undergone post-exposure vaccination needlessly.

​​​​​​​Louis Pasteur was my childhood hero. He guided me into a career in microbiology and veterinary medicine. Don't let all his hard work go to waste. Rabies is a preventable disease. Vaccinate your pets! I've had the rabies vaccination 3 times and it doesn't hurt. Trust me, I'm a doctor.