Rats, Lice, and History Analysis
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 approach to disease and to medical history, Zinsser’s explicit goal is to write a genuinely scientific book about infectious disease that addresses generally well-educated readers rather than specialists. Since he also wishes to avoid popularizing his subject by oversimplifying or sensationalizing it, he provides detailed explanations, quotations from established authorities, and careful reasoning where the facts are uncertain. He assumes a high level of sophistication in his readers and frequently does not provide translations of short passages in Latin, German, and French, although he does translate classical Greek phrases and Spanish passages. Readers not conversant with medical terminology may want to keep a specialized dictionary at hand in order to appreciate sentences such as this one, from a discussion of literature: “There is no arsphenamin for the psychic treponema.”
Since Zinsser allows himself to comment on every aspect of life that intersects the existence of typhus fever,
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