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An Extraordinary Ordinary Man

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Hans Zinsser is stalking a murderer. His quarry has terrified hapless victims for centuries, coming upon them suddenly, by stealth, with overwhelming power and agility, sending whole cities into panic, pushing empires to the edge of extinction, then vanishing, only to reappear thousands of miles away. Dr Zinsser’s story is not an ephemeral romance of vampire kitsch but a true tale of blood lust, life and death. Dr Zinsser is a bacteriologist. The murderer he hunts is typhus, an adversary he respects as Holmes respected Moriarty. So deep runs his feeling that after decades of struggle, he comes to love it ‘as Amy Lowell loved Keats’, and even to write its biography. His life is so intertwined with that of his enemy that his ‘biography of a bacillus’, Rats, Lice and History, may be read as a long and entertaining digression from his incomparable memoir, As I Remember Him: A Biography of RS, which he disguised as a third-person narrative, the RS of the title being his own Romantic Self.

Dr Zinsser was first introduced to me by a bookseller friend. (Most of my friends are booksellers. Imagine.) He had been glancing through As I Remember Him, entranced, as I walked into his shop. He placed the book atop a precariously stacked pile of dusty volumes as he greeted me, still smiling to himself, his eyes a-glitter. I knew that look. I was on The Hunt. I reached for the good doctor with greedy hands, blew the dust from the top, and read the table of contents. It began at once: the fluttering sensation that shouts to every booklover, announcing he has A Find. Twenty minutes later I was still reading.

We are informed by Dr Zinsser with deadpan, professorial dignity that Rats, Lice and History, first published in 1934, is inspired by Plutarch and is loosely modelled on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It begins in appropriately eighteenth-century fashion with a subtitle of more than a hundred words,

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Hans Zinsser is stalking a murderer. His quarry has terrified hapless victims for centuries, coming upon them suddenly, by stealth, with overwhelming power and agility, sending whole cities into panic, pushing empires to the edge of extinction, then vanishing, only to reappear thousands of miles away. Dr Zinsser’s story is not an ephemeral romance of vampire kitsch but a true tale of blood lust, life and death. Dr Zinsser is a bacteriologist. The murderer he hunts is typhus, an adversary he respects as Holmes respected Moriarty. So deep runs his feeling that after decades of struggle, he comes to love it ‘as Amy Lowell loved Keats’, and even to write its biography. His life is so intertwined with that of his enemy that his ‘biography of a bacillus’, Rats, Lice and History, may be read as a long and entertaining digression from his incomparable memoir, As I Remember Him: A Biography of RS, which he disguised as a third-person narrative, the RS of the title being his own Romantic Self.

Dr Zinsser was first introduced to me by a bookseller friend. (Most of my friends are booksellers. Imagine.) He had been glancing through As I Remember Him, entranced, as I walked into his shop. He placed the book atop a precariously stacked pile of dusty volumes as he greeted me, still smiling to himself, his eyes a-glitter. I knew that look. I was on The Hunt. I reached for the good doctor with greedy hands, blew the dust from the top, and read the table of contents. It began at once: the fluttering sensation that shouts to every booklover, announcing he has A Find. Twenty minutes later I was still reading. We are informed by Dr Zinsser with deadpan, professorial dignity that Rats, Lice and History, first published in 1934, is inspired by Plutarch and is loosely modelled on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It begins in appropriately eighteenth-century fashion with a subtitle of more than a hundred words, listing the numerous aliases by which our hero has been known, followed by a preface in the form of an apology. His record is to be a personal one, like Boswell’s Johnson. There will be no ‘keyhole indiscretions’, no Oedipus complexes, suppressed urges, oral fixations or fashionable psychoanalysis. The Man of Action must be judged by his actions. The attentive reader will by this point have noticed that Dr Zinsser is blessed with the candour of Montaigne, does not suffer fools at all, and is incapable of equivocation, or even tact. Political Correctness would have sent him sprawling to the floor in a disbelieving paroxysm of helpless laughter. He is a highly civilized man, educated in Berlin, Paris and Vienna, as well as at Columbia and Harvard, where he later returned to teach medicine. He reads Latin and Greek for pleasure, quotes freely in French and German but does not translate, and, like Conrad and Nabokov, writes with enviable felicity in his third language, English, which he did not begin to speak until the age of 10. His life began in the era of horses and gaslight, of Emerson and Longfellow, and ‘the present vogue for incomprehensibility and brutality in verse’ repels him. Though he spent his adulthood at the forefront of twentieth-century science, he forever felt the tug of the Enlightenment. With Goethe, he is at home. Faust is a liberal education, an opinion he shares with his father, who had miniature copies of Goethe’s masterwork rebound in soft black leather, one for every suit of clothes he owned, so as never to be without his hero. The elder Zinsser’s other contribution to his son’s future was a substantial fortune, which enabled him to be educated at a leisurely pace in the world’s finest universities. In a lesser man, inherited wealth might have produced a life of ease, dissipation and ennui. In Zinsser, it produced a world-class research scientist with a sense of mission and purpose. With a head full of Keats and Shelley, the restless, romantic young man saw the modern world as a drab place where ‘the dragons are all dead’, but then the study of infectious disease opened his mind to one of the few genuine adventures left in the world. After a few years practising emergency medicine for the poor and delivering babies in the worst New York neighbourhoods, he grew restless, enlisted in the US Army Medical Corps and served in the First World War in Serbia, hoping like many young men of German ancestry to be present to rebuild a democratic Germany. His assignment: to study and stop the infectious diseases that accompany military campaigns, primarily typhus. He had found his purpose.

I remember one dark, rainy day when we buried a Russian doctor. A ragged band of Serbian reservists stood in the mud and played the Russian and Serbian anthems out of tune . . . When the chanting procession finally disappeared over the hill, I was glad that the rain on my face obscured the tears that I could not hold back. I felt in my heart, then, that I never could or would be an observer, and that, whatever Fate had in store for me, I would always wish to be in the ranks, however humbly or obscurely; and it came upon me suddenly that I was profoundly happy in my profession.

And wherever Dr Zinsser goes, from Trotsky’s Russia to pre-Maoist China, from Tunis to Boston, from Mexico to Imperial Japan, we are delighted to accompany him. Though he indulged in years of amorous dalliance with cholera, dysentery, plague, malaria, syphilis, influenza and meningitis, he always returned to his lady love, typhus. For him, so-called ‘big-game hunting’ is a pastime for the effete sportsman. He is after larger game: the brown rat. A reservoir of death, the brown rat is the citadel of the elusive maiden of the doctor’s affections, typhus, who lures the louse in its youth and innocence to her lair with her siren song, promising warmth and nourishment, then enslaves him to carry her off to her real prey: man. The gallant Dr Zinsser awaits her, microscope and poisoned chalice to hand. Dr Zinsser is perhaps the only writer ever to raise (or lower) immunology to the status of adventure story. It was not, however, all mirth and merriment.

The technique of travelling in epidemic countries – especially when the prevailing epidemics are carried by lice, bedbugs, and fleas – is a special one. I never slept in a bed . . . I carried a Red Cross blanket, an extra suit of underwear, a beer bottle full of kerosene, and another of chloroform . . . The discarded underwear was loosely packed into my boots, a tablespoon of chloroform poured into each one, and a string tied tightly around the tops. This executed any vermin that happened to be in the underwear, and made the clothing safe for use the following day. Then came a thorough wash . . . Before wrapping myself in the blanket for sleep on the floor, I would sprinkle it with kerosene. I used my stuffed boots as a pillow, and usually managed a fair night’s rest.

Always in hot pursuit of adventure, Dr Zinsser gives only a passing nod to bedbugs, for bedbugs are vulgar sport. He admires fleas, but his deepest respect is reserved for lice, which he often carried in a small tin under his sock, to keep them warm. Lice are wily, and carry the kiss of death. It is an oddly empathetic observer who can write with almost convincing, even poetic, affection for lice, but so he does.

The louse was not always the dependent, parasitic creature that cannot live away from its host. They were once free and liberty loving lice, who could look other insects in their multi-faceted eyes and bid them smile when they called them ‘louse’ . . . The louse sacrifices a liberty that signifies chiefly the necessity for hard work . . . but achieves, instead, a secure and effortless existence on a living island of plenty. In a manner, therefore, by adapting itself to parasitism, the louse has attained the ideal of bourgeois civilization, though its methods are more direct than those of business and banking, and its source of nourishment is not its own species.

In addition to his contributions as a bacteriologist, Dr Zinsser has given us some of the most entertaining footnotes since Gibbon, which reveal him in all his mischievous, arrogant glory. They include any thought he feels like wandering off with but cannot quite fit into his narrative, though, as he has warned us, he writes for himself, and ‘the temptation to discursiveness is a strong one’. Irrelevant, gratuitous, trivial or fascinating, his asides all have the same bracing, opinionated spirit that carries us through the narrative. One can easily imagine the wry smile on the Doctor’s face as he muses on the impact of Mrs Cortez, had Cortez brought her along to conquer the Americas; on the self-denial required in writing footnotes; and, my personal favourite, which appears as a footnote to the word ‘saprophyte’: ‘If the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad.’ (A saprophyte is a vegetable organism living in decaying organic matter. I had to look it up too.) Dr Zinsser’s judgements, often disconcertingly correct, will make readers of delicate sensibilities blench. It feels occasionally as if he is engaged in a competition, the objective of which is to cause the most offence in the fewest words; but it is a vibrant, masculine voice, overflowing with passion and purpose and, ultimately, profound compassion. For it was his compassionate understanding of squalor, sorrow and pain that mastered the arrogance, disgust and indifference of his privileged youth, turning his fine mind into an instrument for good. Though infectious disease often defeated him, it never conquered him. He conquered it. After decades of pursuit, Dr Zinsser and his colleagues announced that they had found not only a vaccine for typhus, but also a ground-breaking way to mass-produce it, which is still in use today. He continued to risk his life to alleviate suffering around the world, but a new enemy was creeping toward him, unseen. Returning to America from yet another adventure, he noticed that the boundless energy that had fuelled his life had begun to fail him. A colleague confirmed his diagnosis: lymphatic leukaemia. He died in 1940 at just 61, but he had enough time to finish his memoir, to bid a loving farewell to his friends and family, and to face death with the cool scientific detachment that had assisted him all his life. He remained to the end an agnostic who could contemplate with reverence the structure and design of Creation, the graceful Elizabethan prose of the King James Bible, then laugh out loud at the Rabelaisian humour he saw in the Old Testament. Dr Zinsser’s magnum opus was not Rats, Lice and History, nor was it As I Remember Him. His magnum opus was his life. As Carlyle observed, a well-written life is as rare as a well-spent one. Hans Zinsser left us both. In his final reflections he saw himself as a rather ordinary man. The literary and scientific professions could use more ordinary people like the extraordinary Dr Zinsser.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Richard Platt 2010


About the contributor

Though lice make him uneasy, Richard Platt holds neither them nor the brown rat accountable for their pestilential reputations. His own species is more problematic.

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