Fame and Zoonotic Diseases

Diseases acquired from animals have repeatedly shaped human history; but the influence of zoonoses on well-known leaders in science, politics, war, religion, art, industry or even crime is not as well known.  The suffering or death of a world leader from plague, anthrax or rabies can serve as an important paradigm in the appreciation of One Health.

In this series I will explore the impact of zoonotic diseases on famous and infamous humans throughout history.  Background data are derived from a “hobby” which I maintain at www.VIPatients.com   The site is interactive.  Users can explore the diseases of over 22,000 “VIP’s”; or generate lists based on disease, profession or year of death.  Although specific “diagnoses” are derived primarily from biographies, and are often speculative or biased, entries are regularly updated as additional information becomes available.

Rabies and Fame

Although rabies was first described as early as 1930 B.C.E., only five famous persons are known to have died of the disease. 

The first VIP to die of rabies was Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond.  Richmond was appointed Governor General of North America in 1818, but died only one year later after contracting rabies from the bite of a fox in Quebec.

In 1868, Gieseppe Abbati, an Italian painter from the Macchiaoli School, died of rabies after his pet dog bit him.  Ironically, both Abbati and the dog had been memorialized in a portrait painted three years earlier (see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boldini_-_Giuseppe_Abbati.jpg).  Six years later, Ada Clare, a little known American actress died of rabies following the bite of a dog.

Hayes St. Leger, 4th Viscount Doneraile was an Irish peer who sat in the British House of Lords.  In 1887, he developed rabies from the bite of a pet fox, and died as his house-servants smothered him to end his suffering.

Actor, Fernando Poe, Sr. is a household name in the Philippines.  Poe was injured while filming a movie in 1951, and died of rabies after allowing a dog to lick his wound.  Thus, the disease does not require an overt animal bite for transmission.

Ironically, the best-known encounter with rabies did not result in death.  In 1886, a Spanish child prodigy was bitten by a rabid dog.  One year earlier, a Frenchman named Pasteur had developed a vaccine for the disease, and this boy became one of the first humans to be saved through vaccination.  In 1891, young Pablo Casals went on to give his first cello recital, in Barcelona.