Review of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, TLS, 12/12/08

I had a fruitful correspondence with Neil Pemberton after this was published on urban noise in the Victorian era, which was supposed to link into my magnum opus on the philosophy of silence, but never did. Thanks again to Maren Meinhardt for providing the published text.

I have been making some rather grumpy comments on James Common’s blog about dogs off the lead near wildlife. It is interesting that Long’s muzzling earned him much more hatred (at least as measured by hate mail) than any severity he imposed on Ireland.

Barrier dream

Seamus Sweeney
Published: 12 December 2008

Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN

Rabies in Britain, 1830-2000

247pp. Palgrave Macmillan. Pounds 45.

978 0 230 54240 2

The year 1830 saw the publication of the veterinarian William Youatt’s pamphlet On Canine Madness, which stated firmly that rabies was a specific and contagious disease spread only by the bite of an infected animal. In the same year, a “great and almost universal alarm” about rabies led one correspondent of the then Home Secretary, Robert Peel, to characterize the summer weeks as an “Era of Canine Madness”. Tensions between the nascent veterinary profession and the more established medical profession, and the plethora of lay remedies – every town and district had its own cure – complicated official responses.

Youatt and other progressive veterinarians and doctors were at odds with the prevailing medical orthodoxy on rabies. A distinction was drawn between rabies in dogs and hydrophobia in humans, and much debate was concerned with clarifying the nature of the disease. For much of the period covered by Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, there were many forms of rabies described by many different authorities with different interests – zymotic rabies, epizootic rabies, furious rabies, dumb rabies, laboratory rabies, street rabies. The authors deliberately do not describe what exactly rabies is, to allow the reader to share something of the historical discoveries and controversies, none of which are as clear-cut even in retrospect for any to be rendered as a simple account of medical triumph.

The nineteenth-century battle between the germ theory and the theory of spontaneous generation of disease was fought over rabies as much as any other condition. This debate was not purely medical, with the developing animal welfare movement generally arguing the case of spontaneous generation, the mistreatment of dogs being a prime factor. The authors show how concerns about the treatment of dogs reflected concerns about wider demoralization and fear of the working class. Muzzling regulations – including those of the 1890s which were associated with the successful eradication of the disease – generally excluded the sporting dogs of the hunting set.

Louis Pasteur’s 1885 announcement that he had successfully developed a rabies vaccine was a cornerstone of the mythic view of Pasteur as a dedicated, devoutly Catholic benefactor of mankind, as exemplified by Paul Muni in the
1937 film The Story of Louis Pasteur. Pasteur became a hate figure for antivivisectionists – who saw him as “the assumed god of biological science” – and was accused of creating a different form of “laboratory rabies” for the purposes of self-promotion.

The muzzling programme of the 1890s (as the authors point out, other factors, especially improved care of dogs, also aided eradication) was most strongly associated with Walter Long, president of the Board of Agriculture from 1895 to
1900, and later a severe chief secretary for Ireland and architect of the Government of Ireland Act. Long received far more hate mail about muzzling than any of his controversial involvements in Irish affairs. As well as antagonizing animal welfare movements (then as now, the authors observe, the RSPCA generally kept to the official line, while more militant groups vigorously opposed the new regulations), the muzzle was linked in feminist discourse to such traditionalistic, misogynistic (and possibly apocryphal) instruments of punishment as the “Gossip’s bridle”. Links between feminism, animal welfare and a variety of spiritualist movements were complex. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to be entered on the General Medical Council’s register in 1859, illustrates these links well – she argued that women in medicine should use the power of “spiritual maternity” to heal society, while rejecting the excessively materialist germ theory, animal experimentation and Pasteur’s treatments. The new generation of female doctors tended to reject Blackwell’s beliefs.

The authors discuss rabies in its wider social and political contexts, especially that of literature. Works such as The Maid of Sker, Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles were all informed by different interpretations of rabies. But the quality of rabies fiction diminished over the years. In the 1970s, a subgenre of Europhobic rabies-based horror fiction emerged. These were literal scare stories such as David Ann’s The Day of the Mad Dogs, in which two tourists foolishly smuggle a stray from France. The virus mutates into an airborne form. “The first victim of this new rabies, Lillian Shaw, a vivisectionist scientist, was gripped by a violent erotic mania and went on a hysterical rampage, seducing and sadistically killing men around her.” W. Harris’s Saliva focused on the emergence of a new strain of rabies amongst badgers that during the Second World War developed a taste for the flesh of dead soldiers. This form of rabies becomes a sexually transmitted disease. The story is set among “the political and diplomatic circles of Europe, where the disease spread among politicians who indulged their sexual appetites to stave off the boredom of life in Brussels”. There is a sexualized intensity to this Europhobia that suggests that perhaps other anxieties are at play.

Britain’s rabies-free status informed portrayals of Fortress Britain, an island nation free from Continental contagion. Norman Tebbit announced in 1992 that “the blessing of insularity has long protected us against rabid dogs and foreign dictators alike”. At European Community summits, the need to exclude rabies was often “the sole, and assumed to be unanswerable, illustration to Britain’s claim for exceptions for rules that suited the rest of Europe”. The institutions of rabies-free Britain must be inherently stronger than Continental institutions. New Labour changed that, adopting Passports for Pets – a phrase originated by Screaming Lord Sutch’s Monster Raving Loony Party – in  2000. This might be read as marking an end to the era of British exclusivity – although the bureaucratic and veterinary requirements for pet passports are far from trivial and perhaps make it less of a populist programme, and less of a liberation for pets and pet owners, than one might think.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen is a trove of fascinating material on a very diverse range of topics – the development of animal welfare, the professionalization of veterinary medicine, British suspicion of foreign medicine, the tension between medical research and anti-vivisectionism, among many others. It is crisply and compellingly written.

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