Rats, Lice, and History Critical Context - Essay

Hans Zinsser

Critical Context

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.