Nr. 11 (1994)

A.G. Thomsen and J.D. Blaisdell

From the fangs of Cerberus: the possible origin of the classical beliefs of rabies

The leading classical medical authors of the first two centuries of our era reached the conclusion that rabies was caused by a poisonous substance and that this came from the fangs of a mad dog.

As it was for the first time that such beliefs were expressed, and the fact that the three authors (Pliny, Celsus and Galen) do not refer to each others work, it is suggested that a common source must have been in existence. It is hypothetized that they based their ideas on the writings on the mythical multi-headed dog of Hades, Cerberus.

The characteristics ascribed to Cerberus by Homer, Hesiod, Vergil and Ovid are analysed and it is concluded that these writings may have inspired the medical authors to introduce a poisonous substance (a 'virus') as the cause of rabies.

J. de Vries

Veterinarians in Friesland, 1800-1850

A formal veterinary education in the Netherlands was established in 1821. Before that year veterinary medicine was practised by people with different backgrounds such as medical doctors, reverents and farmers. The largest group of people involved in practising veterinary medicine were those who had gathered their knowledge by tradition and by experience, the so-called empiricists. In the province of Friesland 38 empiricists were registered in 1812. From 1809 onwards empiricists could pass an examination which authorized them to provide veterinary care. Five of these authorized 'veterinarians' settled down in the province of Friesland in the period 1819-1823. The first two veterinarians who graduated from the State Veterinary School came to Friesland in 1826. Between 1821 and 1850 a total of 19 graduate veterinarians were allotted a post in Friesland by agricultural societies. Thirteen of them were Frisian, 6 came from other parts of the country. A national questionnaire held in 1846, which was organised to assess the extent of empiricism, showed that veterinary medicine in Friesland was practised by 11 graduate veterinarians and 53 empiricists. The authorities concluded that they could not do without the practical knowledge of the empiricists. Legal protection of the veterinary profession was therefore not established. Due to the presence of the large number of empiricists, it was rather difficult for the graduate veterinarians to establish a practice large enough to make ends meet. Furthermore, they lacked practical training. One of the main problems the veterinarians had to deal with was the contagious pleuro-pneumonia in cattle. They had no effective treatment at their disposal, a fact that damaged their reputation in the eyes of the farmers. In 1849 the Frisian veterinarians established a society. It lasted, however, only a couple of years. Attempts to establish a provincial veterinary service failed. Around 1850 the perspectives for veterinarians were rather bad. This situation would last until the 1870s when the government was more willing to protect the veterinary profession.

D.J. Houwers

Brucella-DNA in a waste-pit from the early 15th century

In an excavated waste-pit in Breda (Province of North-Brabant, The Netherlands) a great number of bones from cattle embryos was found, indicating a high incidence of abortions. Fragments of household utensils in the pit could be dated as to be from the early 15th century. In order to find the cause of the abortions some material was analysed with the aid of the polymerase-chain-reaction (PCR)-technique. Microbial proteins of that age are decomposed, but DNA is remaining intact. Sequencing of a fragment of DNA led to the probability diagnosis of brucellosis. The disease will not have been confined to cattle, but will have infected the human population too. The low life expectancy of those days can partially be explained by the frequent occurrence of brucellosis.