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a short history of rabies

How Old
is Rabies?

Rabies may be the oldest infectious disease known to man. Follow the timeline and discover how rabies made history over 4,000 years ago...


Rabies Timeline

2300 BC
Dog owners in the Babylonian city of Eshnunna are fined heavily for deaths caused by their dogs biting people.

800-700 BC
likens Hector to a “raging dog” in The Iliad, one of the oldest Greek poems known today. He writes that Sirius, the dog star of Orion, “exerts a malignant influence upon the health of mankind".

500 BC
Democritus, a Greek philosopher records a case of canine rabies.

400 BC
Aristotle writes that “dogs suffer from the madness. This causes them to become very irritable and all animals they bite become diseased.”
By now, the Greeks have two special rabies gods; one to prevent rabies, (Arisaeus, son of Apollo) and a one to heal rabies, (Artemis).

001-100 AD
Rabies is widespread across the Roman Empire, Greece and Crete.
The Roman Cardanus describes saliva from a rabid dog as a virus – the Latin word for poison.
Pliny the Elder also devises a series of treatments based around the idea that rabies is a tongue worm.
A Roman physician named Celsus takes a special interest in rabies and discovers saliva alone contains the virus. He recommends cleaning, sucking and burning (cauterizing) the wound before leaving it open so the virus could drain out. This will remain the only accepted treatment for the next 1800 years.

The treatment for rabies in cattle is described by early veterinary medicine writer, Vegetius Renatus.

Aetious, a Mesopotamian physician, writes an accurate description of dog rabies symptoms.

Greek physician, Paulus Aegineta records the difference between fatal hydrophobia caused by dog bites and simple hydrophobia stemming from a different cause.

Syrian doctors believed hydrophobia was incurable. They helped suffering patients by giving water disguised inside drops of honey.
Rhazes, (Al-Razi) a Persian physician identifies hydrophobia and further describes rabies symptoms in humans.


The writings of another Arab physician, Avicenna, (Abu Ali Sina) mark a step forward in knowledge about the disease. His books were used in European medical schools for nearly 500 years.

Madness in dogs is recorded in the laws of Howel the Good, of Wales. This is the earliest record of rabies in Great Britain.

Poisons and Their Antidotes, by Talmud scholar and physician Moses Maimonides, contains remedies against bites from mad dogs.

First large rabies outbreak reported. 30 people die after rabid wolves invade villages in Franconia (Germany).

During the 15th century, Spain is ravaged by canine rabies

During the 16th century, Christian Europeans believe a patron saint named St. Hubert will cure rabies. Many travel to his shrine at Liege, Belgium and die of ‘the madness’. Jean Gerson, a French theologian, speaks out against superstitious practices in religion.

Canine rabies spreads through Flanders, (North Belgium) Austria, Turkey and Hungary.

Rabies reaches Paris, causing panic.

Superstitious practices for treating rabies are condemned by the Sorbonne.

Rabies spreads through Europe during the 18th century.

The first case of rabies is reported in the Americas by a priest in Mexico. He is told off for raising the problem by his superiors in Spain.

Canine rabies appears in England.

Rabies is reported in Barbados among dogs and hogs. They are said to die around three days after getting sick.

Orders to shoot dogs on sight are given in England when rabies appears around St. James, London.

Canine rabies is present in the State of Virginia, North America.

Serious outbreak of rabies reported in London. All dogs are confined for one month. Dogs on the street are killed and a reward of 2 shillings per dog is offered. The reward prompts barbaric scenes of killing in the streets.

Serious rabies outbreaks reported in France, Italy and Spain. Authorities slaughter dogs. In Madrid, Spain, 900 dogs are killed in just one day.

Rabies breaks out in Boston and other North American towns. Foxes and dogs carry the disease to farm animals. The symptoms are unusual and rabies is reported as a new disease.

Rabies is a general disease throughout England. People are discouraged to keep dogs. Bigger rewards – up to five shillings - are paid for each dog killed.

The French West Indies is invaded by rabies. Cattle and people are bitten by infected dogs.

Rabies is now common across North America.

A New Yorker dies from hydrophobia after skinning an infected cow.

Rabies is common in France and Silesia (now Poland and the Czech Republic). It spreads through wolves and foxes in central Europe.

Rabies appears on Rhode Island.

Rabies becomes widespread in Northern, Western and Eastern Europe during the 9th century. It is common in the Ukraine. There are accounts of European villagers dying from contact with mad wolves, foxes and dogs. There is also a reappearance of rabies in North America and it moves up to Canada. And in England, it never goes away.

Hundreds of dead foxes are spotted at the foot of the Jura Alps, eastern France. This outbreak, the largest yet recorded lasts for thirty years and wipes out all foxes in some areas, terrifying villagers. In the same year, rabies appears in Peru for the first time.

Zinke, a German scientist demonstrates rabies is passed through saliva by conducting experiments on animals.

Dogs belonging to English officers introduce rabies to Argentina.

Rabies reappears in eastern USA and Ohio.

Rabies enters the Black Forest, Germany.

Rabies appears in Chile and kills many.

French chemist Louis Pasteur and his assistant, Physician-scientist Emile Roux, begin research on a cure for rabies.

Roux presents a medical paper about the rabies research he as been doing with Pasteur. Roux creates a rabies vaccine from the spinal cord of an infected animal and tests it on dogs.

Joseph Meister is mauled by a rabid dog and brought to Pasteur. Pasteur gives him the rabies vaccine immediately, despite the risks to his own career as he is not a doctor, but a chemist. The treatment was successful, and Pasteur was hailed as a hero.

Canadian physician William Osler, describes hydrophobia in a medical textbook. He recommends careful washing and treatment of the wound. Osler is unaware of Pasteur’s breakthrough.

The first US case of rabies in a bat is reported by the CDC.

Dr. Robert Kissling developed the fluorescent antibody test for rabies.

How Did
Rabies Get its Name?

Rabid dogs sometimes appear to be angry or in a rage. Rabies comes from the Latin word rabere. Rabere means to rage or rave.

This Latin word rabere may have roots in a Sanskrit word rabhas. Rabhas means to do violence.

The Greeks called rabies lyssa or lytta, which means frenzy or madness. They named human rabies hydrophobia, which means fear of water, a symptom shown by rabies victims.

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The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, from ...
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Homer Blind Greek Poet
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Democritus Greek Philosop...
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Portrait of Aristotle (38...
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Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Razi K...
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Portrait of Avicenna, Lit...
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Savants at the Table of Maimonides, f...
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At La Rochette Three Country People B...
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Mad Dog, a Caricature of People's Fea...
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At Cahors France a 16-Year Old Boy Gr...
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Rabid and Hydrophobic Dog...
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Pierre-Paul-Emile Roux Fr...
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The Jubilee of Louis Past...
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Louis Pasteur French Chem...
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The Natural History of Rabies, Second Edition


Coming Soon: Rabies: 1960 - 2007

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