Today In Science History – November 17 – Hans Zinsser and Typhus

Hans Zinsser
Hans Zinsser (1878 – 1940)
Wellcome Trust

November 17 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 managed to develop a 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 à 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 lambs-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.

Notable Science History Events for November 17

2000 – Louis-Eugène-Félix Néel died.

Louis Néel
Louis Néel (1904 – 2000)

Néel was a French physicist who was awarded half the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discoveries concerning ferromagnetism and antiferromagnetism and contributions to solid state physics. He researched magnetism on the molecular level and found the electrons in ferromagnetic materials tend to spin in all the same directions. In non-magnetic material, side by side electrons will spin in opposite directions and cancel each other’s magnetic field out. He called this property antiferromagnetism.

1990 – Robert Hofstadter died.

Hofstadter was an American physicist who was awarded half the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics for his studies of the structure of the nucleons using electron scattering. He discovered that both the proton and neutron have a positively charged core surrounded by a double cloud of pi-mesons. Both clouds are positively charged in the proton, but in the neutron, the inner cloud is negatively charged giving a net zero charge.

1970 – Lunokhod 1 lands on the Moon.

Soviet Rovers Lunokhod
Lunokhod Lunar rover

The Soviet Union landed the first of their remote-controlled lunar rovers called Lunokhod 1. The rover was carried by the Luna 17 spacecraft and dropped from orbit. Once it landed, it became the first robot to operate on another astronomical object. It landed at the Sea of Rains and took a series of photographs and tested the Lunar soil. It was designed to work for 3 months but it managed to operate for 322 days. During this time, it traveled 10.5 km, took over 20,000 photographs, and performed 25 soil analysis experiments.

1922 – Stanley Cohen was born.

Stanley Cohen
Stanley Cohen

Cohen is an American biochemist who shares the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Rita Levi-Montalcini for their discoveries involving growth factors. Their research isolated the nerve growth factor that induces the differentiation of nerve tissue. They also discovered and isolated the epidermal growth factor. This research has helped in the understanding of cancer growth and anti-cancer drug development.

1902 – Eugene Paul Wigner was born.

Wigner was an Austrian-American physicist who was awarded half the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to quantum mechanics. He developed the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics where a physical system’s properties may be unchanged when a transformation is applied.

1878 – Hans Zinsser was born.