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Living through the Covid-19 pandemic has more than drummed home the emotional dimensions of diseases. Grief, anger, sorrow, fear, and – sometimes – hope have been felt and expressed repeatedly over the last year, with discussions emerging on Covid-19’s impact on emotions and the affect of lockdown on mental health.

But emotions have long since stuck to diseases. Rabies – sometimes called hydrophobia – is a prime example.[i] In nineteenth-century Britain, France, and the United States, rabies stoked anxieties. Before the gradual and contested acceptance of germ theory at the end of the nineteenth century, some doctors believed that rabies had emotional causes.

For much of the nineteenth century, the theory that rabies generated spontaneously jostled with the one that held that it was spread through a poison or virus. The spontaneous generation theory stressed the communality of human and canine emotions. Rather than contagion through biting, emotional sensitivity made both species susceptible to the disease.

A sensitive person prone to emotional disturbances was considered particularly at risk from external influences that might cause rabies to appear. “Violent affections of the mind, operating suddenly and powerfully on the nervous system” could in rare cases lead to rabies or, at the very least, exacerbate the symptoms in nervous patients, according to Manchester physician Samuel Argent Bardsley (who was more commonly known for promoting quarantine as a way of containing the disease).

For one Lancashire man, John Lindsay, the difficulty of feeding his family drove him to anxiety and despair, exacerbated by a bout of overwork and a lack of food. Fatigued, suffering from headaches, and fearing liquids, Lindsay remembered being bitten by a supposed mad dog some twelve years previously. Amidst violent spasms, visions of the black dog “haunted his imagination with perpetual terrors” and made recovery seem “hopeless.” With reluctance, Bardsley concluded that this was a case of spontaneous rabies. Emotional distress and an overactive imagination had caused and aggravated the disease.

During the mid-nineteenth century prominent London doctors argued that rabies was closely linked to hysteria and had emotional and imaginative origins, much to the chagrin of veterinarian William Youatt, the leading opponent of theories of spontaneous generation.[ii] In the 1870s alienists (otherwise known as psychiatrists) then lent greater intellectual credibility to theories of rabies’ emotional aetiology. They stressed the powerful sway that emotions and the mind held over individuals, especially in the enervating conditions of modern life.

Physician and prominent British authority on mental disorders Daniel Hack Tuke argued that disturbing emotions and images could create hydrophobic symptoms in susceptible individuals. Referencing Bardsley, and drawing on French examples, he argued that “such cases illustrate the remarkable influence exerted upon the body by what is popularly understood as the Imagination.” The very act of being bitten by a dog and the “fearful anticipation of the disease” was enough to spark rabies , even if the dog was not rabid. Even rational and emotionally-hardy doctors had reported suffering from hydrophobic symptoms when recalling the appalling scenes of distress during the examination and treatment of hydrophobic patients.[iii] 

Tuke suggested that in some cases excitement or other forms of mental, emotional, and sensory overstimulation could activate the virus years after a bite from a rabid dog. He drew on a striking case from the United States, as reported by the Daily Telegraph in 1872. A farmer’s daughter had been bitten by a farm dog when choosing chickens for slaughter. The wound healed and no signs of rabies appeared until her wedding day two months later. The “mental excitement” of this life-changing event brought on a dread of water. After the ceremony she experienced spasms and “died in her husband’s arms.”

Tuke reproduced the newspaper’s view, and more generalized gendered assumptions about female emotional delicacy, that such “nervous excitement” had a profound influence on the “gentler” sex. In this case, her nerves were considered to have been exacerbated by the anticipation of the impending wedding night, which was often framed as an emotionally fraught sexual encounter.[iv]

Dr William Lauder Lindsay of the Murray Royal Asylum in Perth, Scotland, was another prominent proponent of the view that rabies was a predominately emotional disease. The disease, he argued, “is frequently, if not generally, the result of terror, ignorance, prejudice, or superstition, acting on a morbid imagination and a susceptible nervous temperament.” Under the sway of their overactive imagination, an individual could take on “canine proclivities,” such as barking and biting. In classist language, Lindsay argued that rabies showed the influence of mind over the body, especially in the “lower orders of the community.”[v]

The British alienists’ depiction of rabies as a predominately emotional disorder made its way across the Atlantic. In the mid-1870s Dr William A. Hammond, President of the New York Neurological Society and leading American authority on mental disorders, stated that the evidence from Europe suggested that heightened emotions might cause rabies in humans. More generally, New York physicians and neurologists debated whether or not individuals had died from actual rabies or fears of the disease, and discussed how fear might turn a bite from a healthy animal into death.[vi]

The alienists lent greater credibility to earlier theories that rabies anxieties could lead to imaginary or spurious rabies. Tuke asserted that fears of rabies could create an imaginary manifestation of the disease. “Hydrophobia-phobia” demonstrated clearly the “action of mind upon mind,” and was distinct from the “action of the mind upon the body” in those cases when emotional distress led to actual rabies.

Echoing Tuke, Lindsay identified women as a particular vector in triggering spurious rabies. He asserted that they spread rabies fears, as supposedly shown by an Irishwomen in Perth who had frightened her husband into believing he had rabies. For Lindsay, this was a classic case of spurious (or false) rabies, which required the rational and firm intervention of medical men, such as himself, to stamp out. But he felt himself fighting an unstoppable tide. For in America, as well as Britain, the press ignited fears and created spurious rabies in susceptible individuals.[vii]

Lindsay and Tuke believed that rabies could, in some cases, be transmitted by dogs to humans through biting and “morbid saliva.” But some doctors controversially argued that it was a purely emotional disease. Eminent Parisian doctor Édouard-François-Marie Bosquillon set the tone in 1802 when he confidently declared that rabies in humans was caused solely by terror. His observation that individuals were struck with hydrophobic symptoms, including “loss of reason” and convulsive movements,” at the sight of a mad dog provided sufficient proof.

Horror-inducing tales of rabies, fed to children from a young age, created fertile conditions for the development of the disease, particularly in “credulous, timid and melancholic” people. Gaspard Girard, Robert White, William Dick, and J.-G.-A. Faugére-Dubourg developed this line of argument as the century progressed. And the theory had traction. In the 1890s, Philadelphian neurologist Charles K. Mills insisted that rabies was purely a disease of the nerves. Such theories were, however, contentious, and Tuke cautioned against those who asserted that rabies was solely an imaginary disease.[viii]

Nonetheless, these theories cemented rabies as an emotionally-fraught disease and reinforced the dangers of dogs bites: even a bite from a healthy dog could trigger a lethal neurological reaction in the swelling ranks of anxious individuals. 

Dr Chris Pearson is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth Century History at the University of Liverpool. His next book Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans made Modern London, New York, and Paris is forthcoming (2021) with University of Chicago Press. He runs the Sniffing the Past blog and you can download a free Android and Apple smart phone app on the history of dogs in London, New York, and Paris. You can find Chris on Twitter @SniffThePastDog.


Cover image: ‘Twenty four maladies and their remedies’. Coloured line block by F. Laguillermie and Rainaud, ca. 1880. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/pysjar4f/images?id=mpqquvrh [accessed 25 March 2021].

[i] Contemporaries sometimes used “rabies” and “hydrophobia” interchangeably to refer to the disease in animals and dogs, but sometimes used “rabies” to refer to the disease in dogs and “hydrophobia” for humans. With the rise of germ theory at the end of the nineteenth century, “rabies” gradually replaced “hydrophobia.” For simplicity’s sake, I will use “rabies” to refer to the disease in humans and animals unless I quote directly from a historical source.

[ii] Samuel Argent Bardsley, Medical Reports of Cases and Experiments with Observations Chiefly Derived from Hospital Practice: To which are Added an Enquiry into the Origin of Canine Madness and Thoughts on a Plan for its Extirpation from the British Isles (London: R Bickerstaff, 1807), 238-50, 284, 290; “Hydrophobia”, The Sixpenny Magazine, February 1866; Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, Rabies in Britain: Dogs, Disease and Culture, 1830-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 [2007]), 61-3.

[iii] Daniel Hack Tuke, Illustrations of the Influence of the Mind Upon the Body in Health and Disease Designed to Elucidate the Action of the Imagination (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1873), 198-99, 207.

[iv] Tuke, Illustrations,200-1; Daily Telegraph, 11 April 1872; Peter Cryle, “‘A Terrible Ordeal from Every Point of View’: (Not) Managing Female Sexuality on the Wedding Night,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18, no. 1 (2009): 44-64.

[v] William Lauder Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals in Health and Disease, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, 1879), 17; William Lauder Lindsay, “Madness in Animals,” Journal of Mental Science 17:78 (1871), 185; William Lauder Lindsay, “Spurious Hydrophobia in Man,” Journal of Mental Science 23: 104 (January 1878), 551-3; Pemberton and Worboys, Rabies, 96-7; Liz Gray, “Body, Mind and Madness: Pain in Animals in the Nineteenth-Century Comparative Psychology,” in Pain and Emotion in Modern History, ed. Rob Boddice (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), 148-63.

[vi] “Hydrophobia: The Subject Discussed by Medical Men,” New York Times, 7 July 1874; Jessica Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Society in an American Metropolis, 1840-1920. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 150-1.

[vii] Tuke, Illustrations, 198-99; Lindsay, “Spurious Hydrophobia in Man,” 555-6, 558.

[viii] Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals, 176; Édouard-François-Marie Bosquillon, Mémoire sur les causes de l’hydrophobie, vulgairement connue sous le nom de rage, et sur les moyens d’anéantir cette maladie (Paris: Gabon, 1802), 2, 22, 26; Vincent di Marco, The Bearer of Crazed and Venomous Fangs: Popular Myths and Delusions Regarding the Bite of the Mad Dog (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2014), 141-47; Pemberton and Worboys, Rabies, 64; Tuke, Illustrations, 198-99; Wang, Mad Dogs, 151-2.

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