Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys tell the fascinating story of how rabies – a disease that still kills thousands worldwide every year – was eradicated from Britain.

Cartoon of the hydrophobia panic of 1826On September 8th 2007, the Alliance for Rabies Control, supported by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, aims to raise awareness of the 50,000 human deaths each year from this preventable and treatable disease. World Rabies Day will promote dog controls and the necessity of providing preventive and therapeutic vaccines in poor countries.

Such appeals will strengthen the common perception in Britain that rabies is exotic and foreign; yet in the nineteenth century rabies, and its human form hydrophobia, were seen as ‘particularly English’ maladies. During the Mad Dog panic of the summer of 1830 it was reported that a ‘grim monster’ had the country ‘in its horrific sway’ and that hydrophobia was ‘inflicting the horrors and tortures of the damned on the people’.

Contemporary medical opinion held that rabies was spread by the inoculation of poisonous saliva from an infected animal, usually a dog, and could affect any mammal. In dogs, the poison or virus produced physical symptoms, such as thirst, a distinctive howl, and profuse salivation, but its main effects were mental, making dogs roam and become vicious, liable to bite anything in their path. There was dispute over whether all cases were ‘caught’, or whether some developed spontaneously, due to the influence of the seasons, heat, drought, diet, sexual frustration, or ill-treatment. Indeed, it was popularly supposed that the disease arose in the Dog Days, the period of high summer from early July when Sirius, the Dog Star, reappears in the night sky. 

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