Global war against the rat

Friday 13 September 2019

The role of the rat in the development of epidemiology is the subject of a new £990,164 research project at the University of St Andrews.

Medical anthropologist at the University, Dr Christos Lynteris, has been awarded the Investigator Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences by the Wellcome Trust.

He will lead a research team to investigate ‘The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis’, beginning in October 2019.

The five-year project, to be based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University, will examine the scientific study of the rat and of the public health practices developed and deployed for controlling rats around the word after its role in the transmission of infectious diseases became known.

When it was discovered at the turn of the nineteenth century that rats carry deadly diseases like plague, leptospirosis and murine typhus it prompted a global war against the rodent.

Dr Lynteris (pictured left) said: “The project will explore how knowledge acquired through medical and epidemiological studies of the rat and knowledge acquired during the development and application of practical, public health measures of vector-control (rat-proofing, rat-catching and rat-poisoning) contributed to our understanding of the way in which diseases harboured by animals are transmitted to humans, and of the role that different forms of animal-human contact play in this process of animal to human infection (zoonosis) – a key driver of global health risk today.”

A particular focus of the project will be how knowledge formed in the course of the global war against the rat during the period 1898-1948 contributed to the formation and development of epidemiological ideas about three key zoonotic mechanisms: the epizootic (an epidemic among animals) as an amplifier of human infection, the disease reservoir as a key mechanism of pathogen maintenance, and species invasiveness as a driver of the spread of diseases within and between animal species.

Image caption: Liverpool Port Sanitary Authority rat-catchers dipping rats in buckets of petrol to kill fleas for plague control. Liverpool, England. Photograph, 1900/1920, courtesy of Wellcome Collections.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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