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...
(The entire section is 602 words.)