A History of Rabies Since the Middle Ages

A woodcut from the Middle Ages showing a rabid dog / Scanned from Dobson, Mary J. (2008) Disease, Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Quercus, p. 157, Wikimedia Commons

In Britain rabies was certainly known in 1000 CE and probably much earlier.

By Dr. Jack Botting
Late Science Director
Research Defence Society (RDS)


On the 17th of June, 1981 an Englishwoman travelling in India was bitten on the leg by a dog. The wound was immediately cleansed by her husband using whisky as an antiseptic. She later attended a local clinic where the wound was again washed and packed with antiseptic powder. The woman returned to England in July and the wound was redressed in her local hospital. By the middle of August she became constantly tired and complained of aches and shooting pains in the back. She was anxious and depressed, and appeared to catch her breath when trying to drink. By the 19th of August she found it impossible to drink more than a few sips. She could not bear the touch of the wind or her hair on her face and had moments of apparent terror. The following day she was confused, hallucinating, incontinent of urine and quite unable to eat or drink. For the next two days she was intermittently hallucinating and screaming with terror until she collapsed and had a cardiac arrest. Although she was resuscitated in the ambulance whilst being carried to intensive care, she died two days later, on 24th of August 1981, without recovering consciousness. The unfortunate woman had been infected by rabies virus in the saliva from the, obviously rabid, dog (Fig. 2.1). The typical symptoms and signs of rabies encephalitis that appeared two months after the initial infection had been misinterpreted as hysteria.

Fig. 2.1 Study of a rabid dog from an oil painting by J.T. Nettleship. / Wellcome Library

Such case reports of rabies make frightening reading. The initial phase of the disease may start some months (in some cases years) after the infected saliva has entered a puncture wound, thus the two events may not be associated. The delay is due to the slow passage of the virus along the sensory nerves to the brain and spinal cord. The initial symptoms resemble those of less serious viral diseases – weakness, headache and loss of appetite. Most patients then move into the so-called furious phase. There is an increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli and a horrifying aversion to liquids (hydrophobia), during which patients may retch and vomit so violently that the lining of the oesophagus may tear. Patients scream in alarm during periods of wild agitation, which alternate with periods of lucid calm. Eventually the patient sinks into a coma and dies. Once the central nervous system symptoms appear, death is inevitable, and the period before coma is terrifying for the patient.

Though causing the death of many wild and domesticated animals, control measures meant that rabies did not in fact kill as many people as other contagions rife until the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, because of its dreadful symptoms, it has been called “the most severe of all the communicable diseases.” (1)

Rabies is still endemic in most parts of the world. Its incidence is under-reported partly for political reasons, and partly because it may be unsuspected as a cause of death. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh there may have been as many as 50,000 deaths per year in the 1970s (2). Sri Lanka, The Philippines and Thailand each lose approximately 1,000 citizens per year due to rabies and the incidence of the disease is also high in China, Iran and Colombia.

Rabies in Britain

In Britain rabies was certainly known in 1000 AD and probably much earlier. In the mid-eighteenth century the situation was so bad that a two shilling reward (then a considerable sum) was offered for the destruction of each stray dog. In the early nineteenth century, packs of hounds had to be destroyed (including the Quorn, a well-known hunt in England) and 36 persons were alleged to die annually from rabies, although this was probably an underestimate.

Outbreaks of rabies continued throughout the nineteenth century in various centres in Britain, and thousands of rabid animals, mainly dogs, were destroyed (Fig. 2.2). By 1864 rabies was widespread in animals in and around London. The Metropolitan Streets Act was passed in 1867, enabling police to seize all vagrant dogs, and rabies then declined (2).

Fig. 2.2 Slaying of a rabid dog. / Wellcome Library

Due to the imposition of strict quarantine laws, rabies was eradicated from Britain in 1903 (There was however an outbreak that originated in Plymouth in 1918 from a dog illegally brought back from the continent. About 300 dogs became infected and 358 persons had to be given anti-rabies treatment (3)).

Rabies in Europe

In the nineteenth century rabies was widespread in Continental Europe, with extensive outbreaks occurring in various species. In an outbreak in 1803, many people, dogs and pigs were bitten by rabid foxes in France, and the foothills of the Jura Alps were littered with the bodies of rabid animals. Between 1800 and 1841, 800 dogs had died of rabies in the veterinary hospital at Lyon alone. By the middle of the century, 60% of the dogs taken to this hospital were rabid (2).

Bites from rabid wolves were commonplace. In 1851 a single rabid wolf bit 46 persons and 82 head of cattle in one day in the vicinity of Hue-Au-Gal. Many people died and all the cattle had to be destroyed (2). By 1869 rabies had become common even in large towns. In that year a rabid cat passed on the disease to a woman in Paris.

Pasteur and his Research on Rabies

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, holding a jar containing the spinal cord of a rabbit infected with rabies, which he used to develop a vaccine against the disease. / Science History Institute/Gregory Tobias

Against this background of rabies endemic in the woods, mountains and by then even the large cities of France, Pasteur launched his researches into the nature and treatment of the disease. Pasteur had up to 1880 worked on the prevention of animal diseases but had always intended to seek “the causes of putrid and contagious diseases that affect man.”(4)

Rabies, an animal disease transmissible to humans, was thus an eminently suitable field of research. Pasteur also had had an early experience of the horror of rabies. As an eight-year-old boy he had witnessed victims of the bite of a rabid wolf arriving at the blacksmith’s forge in his home town of Arbois in eastern France, to have their wounds cauterised (5). A procedure of doubtful value but the sole preventive treatment for rabies at that time.

Pasteur was convinced that rabies did not occur spontaneously in dogs, but that each case derived from another. Obvious today, this view was not commonly held in the 1880s. The saliva of rabid animals was an obvious source of the infective organism and Pasteur attempted to infect rabbits by inoculation of saliva from patients dying of rabies. He also, with some bravery, collected saliva from rabid dogs for the same purpose. The deliberately infected animals died. From his researches, Pasteur did not believe that any of the visible micro-organisms in saliva were the cause of rabies, nor was he convinced that the rabbits always died of rabies (rabbits with rabies sink into a “painless kind of paralysis” rather than the “rage” seen in dogs (4)). Further, the latent period before the disease became evident varied tremendously, making the experiments long and unpredictable.

It is tempting to believe that Pasteur sensed intuitively that the sometimes very long incubation period of rabies was because the infective organism took a long time to reach the central nervous system via the peripheral nerves. At all events, Pasteur decided that using the brain and spinal cord of infected animals was the best way of transmitting the disease for his particular experimental purposes.

Placement of portions of the brain of a dog dead from rabies under the skin of rabbits reliably produced the disease, but there was still a prolonged latent period. The crucial experiment was to place the infected tissue onto the surface of the brain of rabbits. This was achieved by removal of a small disc of bone from the skull of a rabbit under chloroform anaesthesia and placing the infected brain tissue just under the membrane surrounding the brain (the dura). This technique always resulted in the production of rabies within 20 days. Pasteur shortened the incubation period to 6-7 days by increasing the virulence of the virus, as he had previously done with anthrax, by repetitive passage through rabbits. Thus, Pasteur had prepared a very active virus with an absolutely predictable ability to cause the disease within a short time (he termed this his virus fixe). The way was now open to explore methods to attenuate the virus, as Pasteur had done with the microorganisms responsible for chicken cholera and anthrax.

Pasteur’s Vaccine

French chemist Louis Pasteur looks on as his assistant inoculates Joseph Meister, a shepherd boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog, from an engraving from Scientific American, December 1885. Image by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Pasteur removed the spinal cord of a rabbit killed by the virus fixe and stored it in an aseptic flask in dried, filtered air in the dark at constant temperature. Under these conditions, portions of the cord gradually lost their ability to infect until, after 12 days, they appeared innocuous. By inoculating many rabbits at different times, Pasteur was able to collect a series of cords ranging in potency from the ineffectual to the highly virulent. Dogs were inoculated with portions of the cords suspended in a small volume of broth, starting with a non-virulent sample and gradually, over 12 days or so, using samples of increasing virulence until the dogs were ultimately shown to be resistant to challenge with the virus fixe. Pasteur demonstrated that 50 dogs so treated were unaffected by bites from rabid dogs and were even resistant to administration of the virus fixe to the surface of the brain. Early this century, modifications of the Pasteur vaccine were used to vaccinate dogs. A consequent fall in the incidence of canine rabies was reported from Morocco, Hungary, Finland, Algeria, Yugoslavia and various parts of the USA (6).

The most intense canine vaccination programme was started in Japan in 1918. From 1921, a phenol-inactivated virus prepared by Fermi was used as a vaccine. By 1934 1.5 million dogs had been vaccinated. The annual number of rabies cases in dogs dropped from 1,041 in 1918 to 60 in 1930 (6). In the 1950s, vaccination was made compulsory and all stray and feral dogs were seized and destroyed. As a result, the last case of canine rabies in Japan occurred in 1956, though the disease had existed there since the 10th century (2).

Treatment of Human Rabies

The virus fixe vaccine of Pasteur was potentially too toxic for routine prophylaxis in humans. At the outset of his researches into rabies Pasteur had suggested that, because of the long incubation period, protection by vaccination might be possible after the bite of a rabid animal. He obtained evidence for this by allowing pairs of dogs to be bitten by a rabid animal; one was then vaccinated the other untreated. In each case the untreated dog died, the vaccinated animal lived.

Not everyone accepts that the experimental studies proved that post-exposure vaccination was effective in preventing rabies. Webster (7) considers that all the early studies (including those of Pasteur) were faulted by poor controls. The studies of Fermi, who used a simpler, phenol inactivated virus as a vaccine, are however generally accepted as demonstrating a post-exposure prophylaxis.

Notwithstanding the subsequent debate over the experimental studies, it is difficult not to accept that post-exposure prophylaxis developed by Pasteur was beneficial in humans. The first patient publicly recorded as being treated by Pasteur probably provides the best known case history in medicine. Joseph Meister, a nine-year-old from Alsace, was brought to Pasteur on July 6th 1885. He had been attacked on July 4th by a dog, thrown to the ground and bitten fourteen times. When found, his wounds were covered with the animal’s saliva. The dog subsequently attacked his owner and was shot; the body had shown evidence of rabies (2).

Pasteur and his colleagues decided that they must treat the boy, since the extent and nature of the wounds meant he was highly likely to develop rabies. 60 hours after the attack, Joseph Meister was injected with an infected cord that had been desiccated for 15 days. He received 13 injections over the next 10 days, the final injection being a virulent sample. The boy survived and was subsequently employed at the Pasteur Institute.

Three months later a second patient was successfully treated and the news of these two successes, which spread with remarkable rapidity, resulted in a steady flow of potential rabies cases to Paris. In 1886 Pasteur reported the results of treating 350 cases of rabies. Only one had died, a child whose treatment was delayed 5 weeks after being bitten. The most conservative contemporary statistics as to the likelihood of rabies developing after dog bites in Paris range from 16 to 40 per hundred persons bitten (8), although some authorities claim the figure was 50% (2).

By the end of 1886, 2,000 people had been treated, including 38 Russians bitten by rabid wolves (three of these died, bites from rabid wolves having a particularly high mortality). Pasteur noted however, that the treatment was not always successful, particularly when the face was bitten. Nonetheless, the value of Pasteur’s crude vaccine can be assessed by examination of the detailed reports that appeared each year from the Pasteur Institute. In 1898 Pottevin reported a total of 20,166 patients treated at the Pasteur Institute with only 96 deaths – a mortality of 0.48% (2).

Criticisms by the Antivivisectionists

Early Modern vivisection / Wikimedia Commons

Pasteur’s researches were acclaimed, and not only within France. In 1886 the British government appointed a Committee to examine Pasteur’s method; it reported favourably and in 1889 a donation of 40,000 francs was made by the government to the Pasteur Institute (4). Anti-rabic institutes, using the Pasteur technique, were opened in many parts of the world.

There is no doubt that contemporary opinion regarded the experimental work on rabies as prodigious. It is sad that a century later, those that seek to belittle the contribution of animal experimentation to medical progress find it necessary to disparage a researcher of the stature of Pasteur. Thus one critic states that Pasteur’s vaccine “turned out to be a failure.” (9) His attempted justification is the uncertainty that rabies will inevitably follow a bite from a rabid animal, implying that in the early clinical studies those that were inoculated after a bite would not have developed rabies anyway.

Obviously a controlled trial, whereby vaccine treatment is deliberately withheld from some patients, would be unethical. Thus the only way to assess the effectiveness of the vaccine is to examine data of the incidence of rabies following bites before development of the vaccine, or data from studies where patients refused the vaccine. Fleming, in 1872 (10) described the clinical course of 198 patients bitten by rabid dogs. Of 132 who had the wound cauterised, 41 died (31%), of the remaining 66 that were not cauterised, 55 died (84%). The mortality in treated patients after the development of the vaccine was between 0.2 and 1.3%.

The most emphatic data was that recorded by the Pasteur Institute of Southern India, Madras (11). Of 28,898 cases treated over 16 years, 0.7% were treatment failures. Of 423 persons bitten by rabid dogs in Madras and who received no treatment, 148 died of hydrophobia – a 35% mortality.

There is little doubt that the vaccine was effective, but by modern day standards it was certainly not safe. Even the later phenol or glycerin-treated vaccines, because of their high nerve-protein content, caused severe neurological complications for 1 in 2,000 patients (2).

Due to the remarkable progress in the prevention and treatment of disease over the last 100 years, patients today enjoy a high expectation of safe treatment. Thus the dangers of the early anti-rabies vaccines now seem grievous. This is another reason that their value, and hence the significance of the experiments that produced them, is peremptorily dismissed in animal rights propaganda.

It should require (for the unbiased reader) only a superficial examination of contemporary records to understand the import of Pasteur’s research. A horrific and inevitably fatal disease had but one treatment – vaccination. Despite its risks, at the time such treatment was not only acceptable but eagerly sought.

Local Wound Treatment

Even 2,000 years ago it was realised that bite wounds from rabid animals were probably the portal of entry of the factor responsible for rabies. Irrigation of the wounds with various noxious substances and cauterization were common until the availability of standard viral preparations enabled experimental studies to be undertaken to establish optimum wound treatment. These studies are well reviewed by Cabasso (2). Typically, guinea pigs were infected with the virus through a wound in the neck or hind limb, or mice had the virus implanted in the hind-limb or foot pad. The effectiveness of various techniques in preventing the development of the disease was then assessed.

Fortunately, the earliest studies resulted in the rejection of cauterization and fuming nitric acid to irrigate the wound (these techniques were common even in the early 20th century). Washing with 20% soap solution was found as effective as these traumatic and painful measures. Of the many other chemicals used in the experimental studies, quaternary ammonium compounds were found to be valuable, with benzalkonium chloride being particularly effective. Of some practical significance, ethyl alcohol was surprisingly efficacious even in concentrations as low as 20%.

The present recommended wound treatment in humans stems from these animal studies. Dead tissue should be removed and the wound flushed with soapy water or a 1-2% solution of benzalkonium chloride. If the wound is deep the viricidal benzalkonium chloride must be used, if it is not available then 40-70% ethyl alcohol is the best alternative. Passive immunisation with anti-rabies antibodies is also used.

Passive Immunization


Since vaccination results in the production of antibodies in the treated person, it was not surprising that immune serum, i.e. serum from vaccinated animals, was tested to see whether it could protect infected animals.

Habel in 1945 (described in Ref. 2) obtained a serum from rabbits hyper-immunised with mouse brain fixed virus. Given to guinea pigs previously infected with rabies the antiserum had a significant, dose-dependent protective effect, the benefit being greatest if the antiserum was given soon after infection. Similar protection was seen in mice challenged with mouse-adapted virus where the development of rabies was prevented if the serum was given within three hours.

These experimental studies were confirmed and extended by Koprowski (12) who raised anti-rabies antibodies in rabbits and sheep to protect infected hamsters. Koprowski also made the highly significant observation that small doses of anti-rabies globulin and vaccine given together completely protected guinea pigs against rabies, whereas given alone they were ineffective. This apparent synergistic effect of the vaccine and anti-rabies serum was followed up by the World Health Organisation’s Expert Committee on Rabies, which instituted a field trial with vaccine and anti-rabies antibodies raised in horses (anti-rabies equine serum). The test was carried out in Iran where there was a high fatality rate amongst humans bitten by wolves. Careful, controlled studies such as those of Koprowski cannot ethically be carried out in humans, nonetheless the few cases initially treated were encouraging. In 1954 a chance of obtaining definitive evidence arose when a rabid wolf entered a village and bit 29 persons. The wounds were all severe. A six-year-old boy was bitten in the head, his skull was partially crushed and penetrated deeply by the wolf’s teeth; he presented with meningeal lesions and convulsions.

Of the 17 patients given antiserum plus vaccine, one died (6%). Of those with severe head wounds given vaccine only, 75% died. The boy with the crushed skull was given six injections of the equine antiserum and, remarkably, was one of the survivors (2). Serological tests on all the victims confirmed emphatically that concurrent use of antiserum greatly increased the beneficial effects of the vaccine. Combined use of anti-rabies antibodies with the modern vaccines is now routine for post-exposure prophylaxis against rabies, as is administration of the antibody preparations to the potentially infected wound.

Modern Vaccines and Immunotherapy

As indicated previously, useful as the nervous tissue vaccine was, it was not without risk, particularly because of its nerve-protein content. Improvement in safety was achieved firstly by the culture of the virus in embryonated hen or duck eggs (1940-56) and then by culture on hamster kidney cells (1960). Though such vaccines were free of protein of nervous origin they still contained potentially harmful factors (2). The development of the human diploid cell (HDC) line provided an improved method of culturing the virus and preparing the safest vaccine (HDCV), which was first used in Iran in 1972.

Similarly, the equine antiserum, though dramatically effective when used in conjunction with the vaccine, could cause anaphylactic shock in a few patients (although the possibility of this occurring could be tested by conjunctival or intradermal administration of a small amount of serum). Hence today rabies immune globulin of human origin (RIGH) is available. This is obtained from immunised donors by repeated bleedings, using plasmaphaeresis, whereby whole blood is removed, the cells separated from the plasma (retained for patient use), resuspended in saline and reinfused into the donor (2).

We have thus perfected the treatment of rabies. Today post-infection prophylaxis is effective and safe, using vaccines grown on human cells and antisera obtained from human plasma. Objectors to animal experiments use this fact to dismiss the contribution of the early animal experiments to the treatment of rabies. This is at best naive. Modern experimenters have been able to refine treatments using modern techniques and human tissue because they could harvest the yield of the experiments of giants such as Pasteur and his colleagues.

Rabies Eradication?

A significant step towards the possible eradication of rabies is the development of a novel vaccine using vaccinia virus (which was responsible for smallpox eradication). The vaccine is produced by inserting the gene coding for the protein conferring immunity to rabies into th

e genome of vaccinia virus (VV). The modified VV is used to infect cultured cells which correctly express the rabies antigen. This antigen has potently induced rabies virus-neutralising antibodies in rabbits and mice and protected the animals against challenge with a lethal strain of rabies virus (13).

This vaccine is active orally and has been used in bait to immunise raccoons in the USA and foxes in Europe. Innocuous to mammals, the vaccine is undergoing field trials in Belgium and France. Widespread immunisation of feral and domesticated animals would be the first step towards the ultimate eradication of rabies.


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From Animals and Medicine: The Contribution of Animal Experiments to the Control of Disease, by Jack Botting, published by Open Book Publishers under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.