- Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine and Society in an American Metropolis, 1840–1920 by Jessica Wang
“In a brief walk of not more than a third of a mile, yesterday, we counted no fewer than twenty-seven ugly yelping rascals,” wrote one observer of New York City’s stray dogs in 1856. The unmuzzled canines “swarm in all the streets, obstruct the pavements, make night hideous with their howls, and have a worse name than Aldermen in New York” (p. 196). Even worse than these nuisances, however, was the fact that free-roaming dogs occasionally carried and spread the virulent Rabies lyssavirus, a virus that remained mysterious well into the late nineteenth century. As Jessica Wang shows, rabies—or “hydrophobia” as it was called when it passed to humans—made people behave in interesting ways, whether or not they were [End Page 126] infected. Though dogs factor into this story, Wang’s focus is on the human context of rabies itself, and a disease that she follows “wherever it may lead” (p. 227), revealing important developments and conflicts in medicine, law, politics, and everyday life in New York between 1840 and 1920.
Wang’s study contains six chapters, along with an introduction and a conclusion. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on social and cultural history of the urban world of humans and animals in nineteenth-century New York, including an exploration of the ways in which death by rabies (and intense fear of it) emerged amid wider changes in American culture surrounding death. Chapters 3 and 4 explore the medical knowledge and therapeutic practices of nineteenth-century rabies. Chapters 5 and 6 are about institutions, politics, and the evolving role of organizational and governmental powers at the turn of the twentieth century. I found the chapters on political and cultural history to be most engaging and enlightening, though readers of this publication will probably find chapters 3 through 5 most useful as medical history. Wang explores broader medical debates and conflicts in great detail. Given that the disease blurred the lines of species (both in transmission and in symptoms), I was left wondering about what interactions there may have been between emerging veterinary medicine and human medicine.
Among the most rewarding parts of Wang’s deeply researched account are the sprinkling of colorful and bizarre characters and anecdotes that transport the reader to a strange time and place. In chapter 3, Wang outlines folk and professional medical treatments and prophylactics for rabies (which were sometimes more syncretic than disparate). For example, Wang discusses the use of “mad-stones,” which people soaked in warm milk before pressing them into wounds to draw out poison. Some of these remedies are more thoroughly explained than others, and the author left me curious to know more about the underlying logic behind many of these treatments. As with other examples from this chapter, Wang deftly connects the materia medica and medical ideas to emerging and evolving global networks.
Wang’s history is hard to summarize in such a short space because her stories embrace complexity and detail. She effectively blurs lines in both medical and political history. We learn of a “dizzying variety of therapeutics” representing competing and overlapping nineteenth-century ideas of bodies and health across folk and professional medicine. In later chapters, Wang complicates the distinctions between public and private authority by exploring the roles of public health organizations, city departments, and animal welfare organizations. She picks apart simple narratives of Progressive Era bureaucratization, state power, and public policy and reveals internal chasms of late nineteenth-century reformers.
Reading Mad Dogs in the midst of the raging COVID-19 pandemic was also somewhat unnerving. Wang shows again and again that medical knowledge and practice exist in (and are constructed by) complex social, political, and cultural factors. Even as scientists gained greater understanding of rabies and developed vaccines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New Yorkers struggled to...