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November 17th is Hans Zinsser's birthday. Zinsser was an American virologist who built his career on the typhus fever. He traveled the world with the Red Cross investigating outbreaks of typhus and studying the head and body louse. From his studies, he developed the vaccine to combat the disease.

He is also known for the book he wrote on the subject called Rats, Lice and History that was basically a biography of typhus and its effects on events in history. He explained how typhus impacted the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires and ended wars. He showed how the body louse was an issue for all people, from kings to peasants. One passage describes the assassination of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterberry.
The archbishop was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of the twenty-ninth of December [1170]. The body lay in the Cathedral all night, and was prepared for burial on the following day.... He had on a large brown mantle; under it, a white surplice; below that, a lamb's-wool coat; then another woolen coat; and a third woolen coat below this; under this, there was the black, cowled robe of the Benedictine Order; under this, a shirt; and next to the body a curious hair-cloth, covered with linen. As the body grew cold, the vermin that were living in this multiple covering started to crawl out, and, as ... the chronicler quoted, 'The vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron, and the onlookers burst into alternate weeping and laughter ...
This book was a great success for Zinsser. It went through over 75 printings and was a best seller in 1935 in spite of its topic. Find out what else occurred on this day in science history.


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