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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
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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

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  361 Ratings  ·  42 Reviews
The classic chronicle of the impact disease and plagues have had on history and society over the past half-millennium. Intriguingly fascinating and entertaining reading for anyone who is interested in how society copes with catastrophe and pain. Relevant today in face of the worldwide medical calamity of AIDS. Continuously in print since its first publication in 1934, with ...more
Hardcover, 301 pages
Published January 3rd 1996 by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers (first published 1935)
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Jun 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am absolutely stumped on how to review this book. I love medical histories, so when I saw this at a used bookstore I picked it up.

This book is about everything BUT typhus. Religion, history, mathematics, politics--if it's a subject completely unrelated to typhus it's most certainly in there. So I should just give it one star and move on with my life, right?

I wish it were that easy, because this book was hilarious. So off-topic, but the author is aware of how off-topic he is, "This, we promise,
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
Nick Davies
Very interesting content, but because of the writing style it was somewhat tough going. Nevertheless, this book represents a curious look at the history of infectious disease and public health. Some parts were unintentionally funny - the Philistines beating the Jewish in an ancient war by getting their Gods to strike the Jews down with a plague. But not a plague of pestilance or dysentry, oh no. Historians believe it was a epidemic of haemorrhoids.
Jul 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Contains the best footnote ever: "If the reader does not understand the meaning of this word, that is too bad"
Printable Tire
Jan 13, 2013 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
Brian Clegg
This classic of popular science has just had a welcome reissue. I say popular science, but Hans Zinsser regularly claims his book is nothing of the sort, as 'we detest and have endeavoured to avoid [popular science]'. (The use of the royal 'we' is another of Zinsser's foibles.) Yet popular science it certainly is - his attempt to avoid the label seems to be because it was somewhat despised as a type of writing by academics in the 1930s when this book was written - and Zinsser wanted to make this ...more
Apr 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Inder by: Dad
Shelves: alltimefaves
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 rated it it was amazing
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
Dina Strange
Mar 27, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What an excellent book. Didn't expect to enjoy it so much. It's fascinating how human history including the destruction and creation of great civilizations was influenced by epidemics of infectious diseases. Its also fascinating how far back in history those diseases persisted in influencing the events in human history. Entertaining and fascinating read.
Sep 22, 2008 marked it as to-read
got this on my table at the studio for when i need a break; picked it up at the hart library for a buck!
Michael Brady
Jun 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, philosophy
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
Tom Schulte
Jul 03, 2016 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
Aug 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Andy Marton
Dec 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 16, 2008 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
Apr 03, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 03, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: my-library
As much as I dislike to give this book such a low rating, I feel that I must. While the book is actually very well written it meanders through multiple other topics before arriving at the self professed subject shortly after the 200th page. For a book the author calls a biography of Typhus it discusses everything from the difference between science and art to multiple other plagues and their effects on history before briefly introducing the reader to the subject for a short period that still wil ...more
May 23, 2009 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 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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.
Feb 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book has the greatest footnote I've ever come across - "If the reader does not understand this word, that is just too bad." This book is both historically interesting, engaging and just a tad sarcastic which keeps it fresh. You feel the author's wit and enthusiasm. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about history from this book!
Jun 01, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
Probably more interesting as a historical document about how scholars looked at disease and the world in the 1930s than as actual history, but the book remains influential in the field, as far as I can tell.
Jul 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Martin Empson
Oct 31, 2007 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"
Dec 26, 2012 added it
Shelves: own
Source: Coles
Jan 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This biography of typhus is fascinating. It has had a huge impact on the development of our society.
Feb 17, 2010 rated it really liked it

Absolutely fascinating history of typhus and plague.
Beverly Hollandbeck
Oct 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
David Eppenstein
Dec 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating book that opened the eyes of a young architecture student to the forces that really affect history.
Mar 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book was the first book I read about disease and pests. I remember it as
a facinating book written for anyone.
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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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