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Rats, Lice and History

4.10  ·  Rating Details  ·  263 Ratings  ·  32 Reviews
Hans Zinsser was born in New York City in 1878. He became famous for his achievement in isolating the typhus germ and developing a protective vaccine. For his distinguished work in bacteriology, Zinsser was awarded honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Western Reserve and Lehigh. Rats, Lice and History was first published in 1935. Reviewers have described it as wi ...more
Mass Market Paperback, 228 pages
Published 1971 by Bantem Book (first published 1935)
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Oct 01, 2011 Nancy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Nancy by: Felisa Rosa
Shelves: history, science, health
Rats, Lice and History is written in an entertaining conversational style with with enough scholarly flourishes that you'll want your computer by your side to look up words and translate all the French, German and Spanish quotes. (Generally the Greek and Latin are translated or explained.)

The author manages to weave in a wide range of historical musings along with up to date science (for the publication date of 1934). The description of how "new" diseases arise is as true for AIDS as for typhus.
Even though this book was written at the turn of the previous century, it hasn't become any less interesting or funny. Hans Zinsser has created an eccentric view of history, rambling about rats, typhus, the Roman Empire, lice, and everything. You can't read it in one sitting, because you'll have to keep taking breaks to calm down from the experience. I liked the book because because I learned so much - this book is a classic microbiology textbook among other things. My favorite foonote was assoc ...more
Printable Tire
Jan 13, 2013 Printable Tire rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I salvaged an old paperback copy of this book from the library's garbage bin one day when I was walking around with a very bad cold. 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.

It's a very strange, funny book- a shaggy dog with fleas.

The first several or so chapters are a defense for why a doctor should be able to write a work of literature. Dr. Zinsser call
Apr 25, 2008 Inder rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Inder by: Dad
Thanks to Happyreader, I realized my review of this book is associated with a totally obscure and out-of-print edition. So that no one will ever actually see my review, and I can't easily compare mine with others'. Since I really, really love this book, I'm moving my review.

A must read for anyone interested in biology, or science, or language, or good writing, or life in general, this is one of my all-time favorites. After many non-sequitors about a variety of topics
Apr 09, 2011 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Best biology book I ever read. Beautiful, ornate style that reminds me of Swift and Defoe. Fascinating details. Nero Wolf was caught reading it once when he was away from the Orchid rooms, which is a recommendation in itself. The idea of a disease as being like a single organism that spans space and time in a single body and has always been with us is irresistible. I keep up with developments in microbiology as a hobby, although I don't normally do hobbies which are usually associated with pasti ...more
Aug 07, 2016 Victoria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hans Zinsser's use of prose and snark throughout this book makes this biographical history of typhus a page turner. He sprinkles medical terms throughout, but acknowledges that getting too technical would be boring. Zinsser weaves history, social commentary, and epidemiology in an intriguing tale that makes the subject of typhus understandable to almost any reading ability. He does, however, insert foreign phrases from French, German, and Spanish that he does not translate (context will carry th ...more
Tom Schulte
Jul 27, 2016 Tom Schulte rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This bountifully discursive romp through a pestilential history was a really enjoyable read. Ostensibly, a "biography of typhus", the disease is not directly tackled biographically until Chapter XII aftr side treks and apologies and then rushed through from the disease's 15th Century emergence verifiably in the 15th Century. It arose probably in the east and even possibly through battling on Cyprus. From there, it flared with the fires of war on to a final subsidence after playing a pivotal role ...more
Jul 01, 2008 Daphne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Contains the best footnote ever: "If the reader does not understand the meaning of this word, that is too bad"
Oct 17, 2015 kubby marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
got this on my table at the studio for when i need a break; picked it up at the hart library for a buck!
Andy Marton
Dec 13, 2014 Andy Marton rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very readable book, managing to be both informative and engaging. Zinsser writes in an unorthodox fashion. The book is as the back of the cover states: a biography of typhus. It goes beyond that, however. It frequently changes style and manages to work in a biting social commentary.

It is also esoteric at times, however. Zinsser likes to occasionally make obscure references with little context. All of it is relevant, but can become confusing at times.

All in all, it's a pity that no one
Michael Brady
Rats, Lice, and History, by Hans Zinsser, is a hoot!

Hans Zinsser - physician, scientist, war hero, and author - wrote a book in 1934, which he titled, with mock yet informative pretension:

Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, which, after Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of Typhus Fever, Also known, at various stages of its Adventurous Career, as Morbus pulicaris (Cardanus, 1545); Tabardiglio y puntos (De
Beverly Hollandbeck
I read this in high school because it was on the Indiana University list of 100 books students should read and loved it. It is the beginning of my love affair with nonfiction.
Mar 28, 2012 Dave rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in the human side of science
I received a copy of this book as a gift when I was in high school. I think my grandmother gave it to me because she thought the title was amusing. The book is a biography of typhus, written by the biologist who isolated the disease. It's written in an engaging style. I especially enjoyed the preliminary chapters where the author discusses the relationship between art and science. It was a mind opener for me. This book prepared me for when I found the essays of Lewis Thomas in 'The Lives of a Ce ...more
Dec 18, 2008 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm told that the science in this book is outdated, but that hardly matters. While this is purportedly a "biography" of the deadly typhus fever, Zinsser doesn't get around to discussing the fever itself until the book is nearly over. In the meantime we are treated to a series of very funny essays on topics ranging from literary theory, the argument for science as an art form, the insipidity of the first world war, and the important role of disease in the development of empires. Highly recommende ...more
May 23, 2009 Heidi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book started my nonfiction craze. I first read it 28 years ago, and re-read often. Informative, funny--Zinnser is very familiar and chatty; laughs at himself while you learn about a whole lot of stuff, including nasty typhus. This was written early 1930's, but its sooo good. There's new stuff out on disease/history, yeah, and I've read most, but this is the FUNNEST.
Apr 11, 2007 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Though this may have been relatively groundbreaking when it was written, the subject matter is now well covered. However, it's not as a historian that Zinnser endures for me so much as as a writer; wry, pithy, and occasionally cantankerous. He's an entertaining character, quite amusing, and always fun to rread.
Martin Empson
Oct 31, 2007 Martin Empson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever"
Nov 14, 2013 Zanna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Taking disease as his spectacles for an analysis of the history of civilization, Zinsser's lively odyssey throws light on events and cultural tropes in a highly entertaining way. Deservedly a classic
Jul 29, 2009 Peter rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is a very good and authoritative account of the spread of disease by a master historian of science. Originally published in the 1930s the book has a classic feel to the language and structure.
R.Bruce Macdonald
Very interesting with wonderfully humorous footnotes.
Mar 17, 2009 Suzanne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not quite a book to read during one's lunchhour, but quite interesting and informative. Not boring at all; I could not put it down.
May 25, 2011 Beth rated it liked it
The first couple of chapters are a hard slog -- purple, pedantic, and precious -- but the book is pretty good overall.
Mar 18, 2009 Stefani rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was the first book I read about disease and pests. I remember it as
a facinating book written for anyone.
David Eppenstein
Fascinating book that opened the eyes of a young architecture student to the forces that really affect history.
Jan 31, 2012 Victoria rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This biography of typhus is fascinating. It has had a huge impact on the development of our society.
History through biology and the effects of our "historical companions" on history.
Sep 15, 2012 Lavanita rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Absolutely fascinating history of typhus and plague.
Read this as a kid. Can't remember exactly when.
Yasmine Carlson
Apr 20, 2013 Yasmine Carlson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The most fun you'll have learning about typhus!
Jun 02, 2009 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Fascinating and very readable.
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“Swords, Lances, arrows, machine guns, and even high explosives have had far less power over the fates of nations than the typhus louse, the plague flea, and the yellow-fever mosquito. Civilizations have retreated from the plasmodium of malaria, and armies have crumbled into rabbles under the onslaught of cholera spirilla, or of dysentery and typhoid bacilli. Huge areas have bee devastated by the trypanosome that travels on the wings of the tsetse fly, and generations have been harassed by the syphilis of a courtier. War and conquest and that herd existence which is an accompaniment of what we call civilization have merely set the stage for these more powerful agents of human tragedy.” 10 likes
“Infectious disease is one of the great tragedies of living things - the struggle for existence between two different forms of life... Incessantly, the pitiless war goes on, without quarter or armistice - a nationalism of species against species.” 4 likes
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