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Rabies, Medicine, and Culture: Dogs, Disease, and Urban Life in the United States, 1840–1920

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History of Rabies in the Americas: From the Pre-Columbian to the Present, Volume I

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The specter of rabies has cast long shadows throughout human history. This essay surveys some key medical and cultural challenges associated with dogs and disease in U.S. urban settings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Physicians puzzled over the constitutional and contagionist dimensions of rabies canina, and struggled to identify therapeutic strategies to counter the unremittingly deadly disease of hydrophobia in symptomatic human patients. Meanwhile, competing claims of the dramatic curative properties of madstones and other vernacular remedies tested urbanites’ abilities to distinguish truth from bunk in a nineteenth-century society preoccupied with the problems of reliable knowledge in a democratic society. In an urban world that encompassed both humans and domesticated animals, dogs themselves and their unruly presence on city streets also fomented ‘mad dog’ panics, as well as generalized anxieties about urban insalubrity and the tenuous status of civilization in the modern metropolis. Rabies was more than a disease: it fueled imaginings about the city itself and its myriad dangers.

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  1. 1.

    Lise Wilkinson, “Understanding the Nature of Rabies: An Historical Perspective,” in Rabies, ed. James B. Campbell and K. M. Charlton (Boston and Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988), 1.

  2. 2.

    P. B. Adamson, “The Spread of Rabies into Europe and the Probable Origin of This Disease in Antiquity,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 109 (July 1977): 140–44; Jean Théodoridès, Histoire de la Rage: Cave Canem (Paris and New York: Masson, 1986), chs. 1 and 2; James H. Steele, “History of Rabies,” in The Natural History of Rabies, ed. George M. Baer, vol. 1 (New York: Academic Press, 1975), 1–29, on 1–5.

  3. 3.

    John Harley Warner, The Therapeutic Perspective: Medical Practice, Knowledge, and Identity in America, 1820–1885 (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1986), 64–65.

  4. 4.

    James Thacher, Observations on Hydrophobia, Produced by the Bite of a Mad Dog, or Other Rabid Animal (Plymouth, MA: Joseph Avery, 1812), 17.

  5. 5.

    William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases…Revised, Enlarged, and Adapted to the Diseases of the United States…by J. G. Norwood, M.D. (Cincinnati: U. P. James, 1838), xi.

  6. 6.

    Advertisement for an “Anti-Spasmodic Tincture,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 15 June 1846, 2. For a more extensive account of rabies remedies and allopaths’ medical authority, see Jessica Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Society in an American Metropolis, 1840–1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 90–105.

  7. 7.

    Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers, 96–98.

  8. 8.

    For the quotation on opium’s stimulative effects, see [John C. Gunn], Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man’s Friend, in the Hours of Affliction, Pain, and Sickness, 4th ed. (Springfield, OH: John M. Gallagher, 1835), 619. Griscom’s full case record of the patient he treated can be found in “Rabies Canina (Dr. Griscom),” 14 May [1855], from Patient Medical Records, [Case Book], Medical Division, New York Hospital, vol. 22, pp. 51–55, Medical Center Archives, Cornell University Weill Medical College, New York, NY. In accordance with the regulations of the Weill Medical School, I have not identified the patient, even though he was named in contemporaneous press coverage of the case.

  9. 9.

    Alfred Stillé, Therapeutics and Material Medica. A Systematic Treatise on the Action and Uses of Medicinal Agents, Including Their Description and History, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1860), 675–76.

  10. 10.

    Charles E. and Carroll S. Rosenberg, “Pietism and the Origins of the American Public Health Movement: A Note on John H. Griscom and Robert M. Hartley,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 23:1 (January 1968): 16–35; James H. Cassedy, “The Roots of American Sanitary Reform 1843–47: Seven Letters from John H. Griscom to Lemuel Shattuck,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 30:2 (April 1975): 136–47, quotation from Cassedy, 139.

  11. 11.

    Thacher, Observations on Hydrophobia, 15.

  12. 12.

    J. Lewis Smith, Report of a Case of Hydrophobia; with Statistical Observations (New York: Holman & Gray, Steam Printers, 1856), 13–15, 33–35, 43–44.

  13. 13.

    Thomas W. Blatchford, Hydrophobia: Its Origins and Development, as Influenced by Climate, Season, and Other Circumstances. Being the Report of the Special Committee Appointed by the American Medical Association, and Read at the Meeting in Detroit, MI, May, 1856 (Philadelphia: T. K. and P. G. Collins, Printers, 1856), 9.

  14. 14.

    H. Bouley, Hydrophobia: Means of Avoiding Its Perils and Preventing Its Spread, trans. A. Liautard (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1874), 44.

  15. 15.

    “The Effect of Cauterization or Cleansing of Wounds Infected with Rabies, after an Interval of 24 h,” Medical Record 55 (21 Jan. 1899): 107–08.

  16. 16.

    Frederic Griffith, “Merely Tetanus” [Letter to the editor], New York Times, 15 June 1903, 6.

  17. 17.

    Anti-Rabic Institutions,” Journal of the Massachusetts Association of Boards of Health 9 (July 1899): 46–47.

  18. 18.

    Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), 7–8.

  19. 19.

    James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), ch. 2.

  20. 20.

    On the likely Japanese origins of the Feejee Mermaid, consult the account by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum: (accessed March 2021).

  21. 21.

    Charles E. Lee, editor, “To the Patrons of the Journal,” New York Journal of Medicine 5 (July 1845): i (for a statement against quackery); W. J. Byrne, “Case of Spontaneous Combustion,” New York Journal of Medicine, n.s. 7 (November 1851): 399, reprinted from the Nashville Journal of Medicine and Surgery.

  22. 22.

    “A Parasitic Foetus,” Medical Record 37 (15 Mar. 1890), 304.

  23. 23.

    Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 June 1888, p. 4; “Death from Hydrophobia,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 October 1893, p. 5. Tellingly, the Chicago madstone was originally from South Carolina.

  24. 24.

    “The Madstone Humbug,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 July 1892, p. 6.

  25. 25.

    “The Kentucky Girl and the Madstone,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 July 1872, 2.

  26. 26.

    “Madstones and Scientists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 July 1884, 4.

  27. 27.

    “The ‘Fauquier Mad-Stone,’” New York Times, 1 February 1871, 4.

  28. 28.

    Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers, 19–20; Andrew A. Robichaud, Animal City: The Domestication of America (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2019), 122.

  29. 29.

    “Extreme Rigor Needed in Fighting the Ever Increasing Hydrophobia Malady,” New York Tribune, 9 June 1912, p. A4; Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers, 24.

  30. 30.

    “Dogs at Large,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 June 1870, p. 2.

  31. 31.

    “Two Dogs Run Amuck,” New York Tribune, 22 April 1889, p. 3.

  32. 32.

    Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers, 38–40.

  33. 33.


  34. 34.

    Ibid, 40–43.

  35. 35.

    Letter to the Editor, “Slaughter the Dogs,” New York Herald, 6 January 1870, p. 5.

  36. 36.

    “Unmuzzled Curs,” New York Herald, 2 March 1881, p. 8.

  37. 37.

    Quoted in [untitled], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 June 1887, p. 4. For reactions to Hewitt’s pronouncement, see “Many Mayors on Dogs,” New York Herald, 25 June 1887, p. 3; Letter to the Editor from “A Woman,” “The Dogs’ Indignant Friends,” New York Times, 26 June 1887, p. 16; “The Case of the Dog,” New York Tribune, 27 June 1887, p. 4; “The Fourth of July,” New York Times, 1 July 1887, p. 4.

  38. 38.

    Letter to the Editor from F. S. D., “To Prevent Hydrophobia,” New York Tribune, 15 June 1890, p. 7.

  39. 39.

    For a classic account of the agrarian myth in American history, consult Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), 23–36. By the late nineteenth century, overcivilization seemed to be encroaching upon country living as well, in the form of ragweed and other allergens that led American hay fever sufferers to begin to think about agriculture as a problem of civilization. Gregg Mitman, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 43.

  40. 40.

    Letter to the Editor from A. W. Adsto, “A Growl at the Dogs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 June 1870, p. 3.

  41. 41.

    “Dogs and Dog Days in the City,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 12 June 1876, p. 2.

  42. 42.

    “Rambler,” “Walks About the City,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 27 July 1890, p. 6.

  43. 43.

    “The Street-Cleaning Commissioner and the Dogs,” Our Animal Friends 23 (Apr. 1896): 171. On Waring, see Martin V. Melosi, Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment, rev. ed. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), ch. 2.

  44. 44.

    “Dogs and Their Habitat,” New York Tribune, 6 July 1899, p. 6.

  45. 45.

    “Mad Dogs in Prussia,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 July 1856, p. 2.

  46. 46.

    “The Hydrophobia Scare,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 25 Feb. 1869, p. 2.

  47. 47.

    See also “Women and Poodles,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 Sept. 1880, p. 2; “Dogs and Muzzles,” New York Times, 19 Apr. 1903, p. 6; Edward Marshall, “Pasteur Expert Sounds Warning Against Pet Dogs,” New York Times, 27 Aug. 1911, p. SM11.

  48. 48.

    “Hydrophobia,” New York Tribune, 22 May 1876, p. 4. See also, for example, Letter to the Editor from “E.S.C.,” “Dogs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 Apr. 1872, p. 1; “Mad Dogs,” New York Times, 28 June 1874, p. 4; and “Scientific Gossip,” New York Times, 26 Feb. 1882, p. 4. Some medical opinion even suggested that cancer attacked animals deprived of natural vigor by domestication: “they are made more subject to the disease when in a state of domestication than in their natural wild condition.” “Cancer and the Doctors,” New York Herald, 5 Dec. 1887, p. 9.

  49. 49.

    “Ugly Dogs to Be Watched,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 Mar. 1897, p. 6.

  50. 50.

    “Dr. Elmer Lee on Rabies, Hydrohpobia, and the Pasteur Treatment,” Our Animal Friends 25 (November 1897): 49–50, quotation on p. 50.

  51. 51.

    “Care of Dogs in Summer,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 15 July 1901, p. 8, excerpted from the Babylon Signal.

  52. 52.

    “The Dog Ordinance,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11 May 1863, p. 2.

  53. 53.

    “Dog Days in May,” New York Tribune, 9 May 1877, p. 4.

  54. 54.

    L. L. Dorr, “Rabies—A Possible Cause and a Probable Preventive,” New York Medical Journal 34 (Nov. 1881), 470–76, on 473.

  55. 55.

    Letter to the Editor from John T. Hoffman, “Ex-Governor Hoffman on Dogs,” New York Herald, 24 December 1885, p. 2.

  56. 56.

    “The Case of the Dog,” New York Tribune, 27 June 1887, p. 4.

  57. 57.

    “Chat By the Way,” New York Herald, 27 May 1883, p. 19.

  58. 58.

    On the history of canine animal control in New York City, see Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers, ch. 6.

  59. 59.

    On pets’ familial position and role in the upbringing of children within the middle-class American family, see Susan J. Pearson, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 29–33 and 37; Katherine C. Grier, Pets in America: A History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 127–31; and Jennifer Mason, Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and American Literature, 1850–1900 (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 13–18. On livestock and the spatial segregation of the American city, consult Robichaud, Animal City, chs. 2 and 3.


This essay includes material adapted from Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Society in an American Metropolis, 1840–1920 and is published with the kind permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Wang, J. (2023). Rabies, Medicine, and Culture: Dogs, Disease, and Urban Life in the United States, 1840–1920. In: Rupprecht, C.E. (eds) History of Rabies in the Americas: From the Pre-Columbian to the Present, Volume I. Fascinating Life Sciences. Springer, Cham.

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