Zinsser was a working scientist and a distinguished professor of bacteriology at the time that he wrote Rats, Lice, and History; within a year of publishing this book, he was the first researcher to isolate the typhus germ, and in the year before his death he produced a vaccine against the disease for humans. The book, however, is not so much his own personal story as it is the story of the larger human struggle against infectious diseases.
Although the title page, chapter headings, and repeated authorial comments refer to Rats, Lice, and History as a biography, it is an unusual book. The author is decidedly opinionated; however, his wit generally blunts the edge of his criticisms. His interests are highly diversified, and, in the relaxed environment of a book for general readers, he takes up several topics that are tangential to his subject or even completely unrelated to it. Zinsser is aware that he is breaking the unwritten rules of academic writing and perhaps even risking his own reputation as a bacteriologist by crossing into the territory of literature, history, biography, and criticism. He defends his unorthodox approach by claiming that “this book is a protest against the American attitude which tends to insist that a specialist should have no interests beyond his chosen field” and that “art and sciences have much in common and both may profit by mutual appraisal.”
In spite of what may seem to be a whimsical...
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At the midpoint of chapter 13, more than two hundred pages into the book, Hans Zinsser admits that he has been following the model provided by Laurence Sterne’s rambling eighteenth century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). Only at that late point does he bring his main subject into sharp focus. His biography of typhus, like the novel that inspired him, is filled with digressions, examinations and reexaminations of evidence, blind alleys, witty asides, and a small amount of slightly cranky literary criticism that finds fault with modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce.
Rats, Lice, and History is admired by scientists who are concerned about overspecialization and the public’s misperception of them as number-crunching drudges. Zinsser shows that scientists are intellectuals. He himself was nearing the end of a distinguished career as a scientist: He had held teaching posts at Columbia, Stanford, and Harvard universities; had conducted research on allergies and rheumatic fever in addition to his work on typhus; and had published two textbooks that became classics in their field, Textbook of Bacteriology (1911) and Infection and Resistance (1915). In Rats, Lice, and History, Zinsser shows his readers a different side of science by interlacing his review of medical history with erudite comments on politics, literature, and economics. He speaks from the point of view of a well-rounded humanist rather than that of a scientific specialist.