Who discovered rabies? Although the disease was first documented by the ancient Babylonians, it took an Itialian doctor and a French scientist to isolate the cause and give people ways to protect themselves and their pets.
While Girolama Fracastoro is better known for discovering the syphilis virus, he also discovered the rabies virus. Though rabies is one of the oldest and most-feared diseases in the world, it wasn't until the 15th century that its true nature was known. Fracastoro came upon the disease often in his medical practice. He was able to determine that the germ was actually a communicable virus transmitted by direct contact with the saliva of an infected animal.
Fracastoro was an Italian scholar and physician, born in 1478 in Verona. He lacked sophisticated equipment such as microscopes, which had not yet been invented. Through years of studying patients who suffered from rabies, Fracastoro was able to link the illness to a virus and label it as a communicable disease that could also be passed from animals to man.
After Fracastoro made this elusive connection, he gave the illness the name rabies. The word rabies hails from a Latin word that means "to rage." Fracastoro noted that rabies was incurable. In 1584, he committed his findings to paper.
Louis Pasteur discovered the rabies vaccine in 1895, when he was 63 years old, relying on Fracastoro's written notes. Pasteur began his career as a chemist but switched to microbiology after two of his children were killed by typhoid. He had a firm understanding of viruses and popularized the idea that germs were responsible for many of the illnesses that plagued 19th century Europe.
Pasteur developed techniques for making vaccines by using weakened strains of dangerous viruses. After isolating the rabies virus in infected animal tissue, he could inject it into a healthy subject. This allowed the body to develop antibodies without risking the health of the person.
History of Rabies
Rabies was so feared in early history that many patients who suffered from the illness were put to death, either intentionally or accidentally. In those days, it was common practice to shoot, poison, suffocate or use some other form to kill not only a beast that was exhibiting signs of rabies but also a human patient who suffered of convulsions, became furious or dangerous or exhibited signs of madness. This practice was so prevalent that a law was passed in France in 1810 that warned those who followed these practices that they would be put to death if caught.
Today it is estimated that upwards of 54,000 people die from rabies each year, mainly in underdeveloped areas of Africa and Asia. The availability of rabies vaccinations in the United States means that few cases are found in domestic animals. In recent years, however, there has been an explosion of rabies in wild North American bats. Researchers are also tracking a mutated strain in Arizona that appears to spread through social contact, rather than bites.
Due to the concentrated efforts of both Fracastoro and Pasteur, we now have a rabies vaccine that saves lives every year. The vaccine must be injected within 24 hours following infection to give the body time to create antibodies against the invading virus. If the rabies vaccine is not given quickly and the rabies virus is allowed to progress, the outcome is almost always death.
The rabies virus is almost always fatal, but it can be prevented with vaccination. Learn more about the stages of rabies and what you can do to prevent it.
Prompt rabies treatment is crucial for anyone who may have been bitten or scratched by an infected animal. Learn about how the disease is diagnosed and treated.