DATE April 5, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Barry, author, talks about the 1918 influenza
virus that killed millions
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed
more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history, more than the
plague in the Middle Ages, more than AIDS today. This virulent influenza
didn't just kill infants, the elderly and the most vulnerable, about half of
those who died were in their 20s and 30s. This epidemic not only decimated
families, it affected the course of World War I and changed the public health
system in parts of America. My guest, John M. Barry, says it was also the
first great collision between nature and modern science. Barry is the author
of "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History."
He's also the author of "The Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927
and How It Changed America," which was named the year's best book of American
history by the Society of American Historians.
Let's start with an overview of how many people were killed by the influenza
pandemic of 1918.
Mr. JOHN M. BARRY (Author): Well, no one knows the exact total. A
contemporary estimate, which is frequently cited by newspapers these days, is
over 20 million, but that vastly understates the number. In fact, there's a
Nobel prize winner, who spent most of his life studying influenza, who put the
number at a minimum of 50 million dead and possibly a hundred million dead.
And some fairly recent epidemiological research has pretty much came up with
the same numbers, 50 million to a hundred million.
GROSS: That's staggering.
Mr. BARRY: It is staggering. I mean, it really--it killed more people in 24
weeks than AIDS has killed in the 24 years that AIDS has been around.
GROSS: In reading your description of the symptoms of the flu in this 1918
pandemic, I was thinking it really sounded more like Ebola than the flu. You
describe people bleeding from all of their orifices. What were some of the
symptoms of this flu?
Mr. BARRY: Well, the overwhelming majority of people got the same kinds of
symptoms we're familiar with. They'd have a terrible three or four days and a
week or 10 days later they were fine. But in a minority, and it was not a
tiny minority, they got something entirely different. Some of the symptoms
were, as he said, they could bleed not only from their mouths and noses, but
even from their ears and eyes. So they were pretty horrific. It was
initially misdiagnosed as typhoid, it was cholera, it was dengue, which is
known as breakbone fever, to give you a sense of some of those symptoms.
There were--people were turning so dark blue from lack of oxygen, which is
referred to a cyanosis, technically. They would turn so dark blue that
physicians reported difficulty distinguishing between white and black soldiers
in the military camps. As I say, these were horrific symptoms in a minority
of cases and that, of course, helped spread much of the terror.
GROSS: Now this pandemic of 1918 coincides with World War I, and the war was
really quite a breeding ground for the virus. How did the war help spread the
virus around the world?
Mr. BARRY: Well, the war was very much a part of the story of what occurred.
For one thing, nobody knows exactly where this virus began. I mean, all
influenza viruses, all of them, had their natural home in birds. And it's one
of the fastest mutating of all viruses, which allows it to jump species. And
periodically, an influenza virus will jump from birds to people and then
mutate in a way that it can pass from one person to another.
It's likely--although nobody knows exactly where this one started, I think the
best evidence is that this actually started in Kansas and that would be highly
unusual. Most influenza viruses start in Asia where more people have contact
with animals, just random chance. But if this did start in Kansas, and I
think it did, in rural Kansas, the war actually brought it to the world very
directly. Because you can trace from this rural area, Haskell County, people
who were sick with the disease who were drafted and sent to what is now Fort
Riley 300 miles away. And several days after these people arrived at Fort
Riley, the camp just exploded with influenza. And from there, it spread to
Europe and eventually around the world.
GROSS: I guess, you know, men being packed together at military bases or
being together in trenches during the fighting certainly is a way of spreading
the epidemic pretty rapidly.
Mr. BARRY: Yeah, the public health aspects of the war certainly influenced
the spread of the disease. Part of it was in the Army camps where men were
extremely tightly packed. All the Army camps, millions of men, they were all
overcrowded. Troop ships, men packed literally like sardines. They were
overcrowded, and essentially, they were a tinder box waiting for ignition.
GROSS: Can you actually describe one of the military hospitals and what the
conditions were like, how underequipped they were to actually deal with this
Mr. BARRY: After it first passed into people in probably February--or 1918,
about six months later it came back in lethal form. And Camp Devens was
probably the first--not probably, it was the first base--hit in the United
States by this new lethal virus. And in September, it held--1918, it held
over 45,000 people. And in September 7th, the first soldier came down with
with the disease, although he was initially diagnosed as having meningitis.
Within a few more days, the virus was so explosive. In one day, 1,543
soldiers were ill enough that they were admitted to the hospital. And the
hospital, of course, was completely overwhelmed, and that was just one day's
toll. They ended up, you know, not only with soldiers lying on cots in
corridors, around porches, but outside.
When some of the best scientists in the world came to visit the camp to
investigate this disease, they literally had to step over bodies in the morgue
that, as one of them said, were stacked like cord wood. There were special
trains that were used to take away the dead. They ran out of nurses, doctors,
all of them were getting sick and dying themselves. They ran out of linens.
They ran out of everything. Virtually every one of the soldiers, the 45,000
soldiers in the camp, whether they were in the hospital or not, were involved
in the hospital in terms of feeding these men, taking care of them, washing,
sending out telegrams to relatives that death was near and they might want to
come visit their son.
One physician at Devens wrote a letter to a colleague, `These men start with
what appears to be an ordinary attack of la grippe, or influenza. And when
brought to the hospital, they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of
pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission, they have the
mahogany spots over the cheekbones and a few hours later you can begin to see
the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face to what
is hard to distinguish the colored men from the white. It is only a matter of
a few hours, then, until death comes. It is horrible. One can stand it to
see one, two or 20 men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies.
We've been averaging about a hundred deaths per day. Pneumonia means, in
about all cases, death. We've lost an outrageous number of nurses and
doctors. It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days,
there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce. It beats any
sight they ever had in France after a battle. Goodbye, old pal. God be with
you till we meet again.'
That was the situation at Devens and that became, unfortunately, the model for
what happened in virtually every Army camp in the United States and in many of
the locations in Europe. But it definitely affected the fighting of, you
know, virtually every battle from late spring through the end of the war.
GROSS: You think it might has also affected the peace plan, because Woodrow
Wilson had the flu during part of the peace negotiations.
Mr. BARRY: Yeah, one of the most noted complications of influenza were
neurologic complications. It could cause everything from drowsiness to
schizophrenia. It's been well documented that influenza has these
complications. And in the middle of the peace negotiations, Wilson got
influenza. In fact, retroactively historians have said that he had a minor
stroke, a precursor to the major stroke he had later, but it's quite clearly
influenza. He had 103-degree temperature. He had violent coughs. He had,
you know, nausea and diarrhea, all symptoms that were associated with the
virus and none of which are associated with a stroke, obviously. And it's
clear that his mind was never the same after this disease. Whether it was
from the White House usher, Irwin Hoover or to Herbert Hoover, who was
all--everyone remarked. Lloyd George said--referred to the spiritual mental
breakdown that Wilson had in the middle of the peace conference. And it
was--and he was actually negotiating from his bed at a time when his aides
said he couldn't remember in the afternoon what had been decided before noon.
He was very disoriented, and it was right at that point in time where he made
many of the concessions to the French prime minister, Clemenceau, that made
the treaty much harsher and certainly inconsistent with the principles that he
had laid down earlier.
GROSS: My guest is John M. Barry, author of "The Great Influenza." We'll
talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John M. Barry and we're talking
about his new book, "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest
Plague in History."
Philadelphia was one of the hard-hit cities in the United States during the
influenza of 1918. And Philadelphia is, of course, the city where FRESH AIR
is produced, so I'm particularly interested in hearing how the flu affected
Philadelphia. You devote a whole chapter to this in your book. Why was
Philadelphia hit so hard?
Mr. BARRY: Well, there were a couple of reasons. One was, it was hit early
and the cities that were hit earlier tended to be hit harder. The other was,
it was one of the most overcrowded cities in the country. You had numerous
shipyards, for example, that--each of which employed tens of thousands of
people. The largest was built just for the war, Hog Island, 60,000 people
working there. And all these workers were drawn in from the country and there
was no housing for any of them. People were not only--you would have two and
three families sharing a single room, you would have people, unrelated people,
sharing beds and sometimes even not only working in shifts but sleeping in
shifts so that you had, one, people leaving the bed and going into work while
someone else lies down in the same bed.
At the same time, it had one of the most corrupt city governments in the
country. It was called the worst governed city in America by Lincoln
Steffans. And you had a public health official who had very little interest
in public health. All these things combined to create, you know, a really
explosive situation. And it came together when there was a Liberty Loan rally
in September. All--many physicians were telling the public health director to
cancel this rally that was going to bring half a million people together. But
because of the war and because he wanted Philadelphia to meet its quota for
raising money to support the war, he refused to cancel the rally. And this
was just as influenza was entering the city, so the average citizen wouldn't
have been aware of it. But 72 hours after this Liberty Loan rally, the city
simply exploded in flames with influenza. There were--the city was then not
quite two million people and there were probably a good--at least half a
million and maybe more than that sick with the disease.
GROSS: What are some of the other things that public health authorities did
wrong in trying to control the influenza in 1918, public authorities in
Philadelphia or other parts of the United States?
Mr. BARRY: Well, essentially, public health officials didn't take the
disease seriously enough or they decided that the war effort was more
important. And this was something that was common throughout the country. So
they never acted until after the disease had already appeared, and that was
almost always too late. Influenza's one of the most contagious of all
diseases, and it's actually often most contagious either before you see any
symptoms or as you're just beginning to show symptoms. So if you wait for it
to appear, it will always be too late. To contain a disease like influenza,
you have to be really pretty ruthless in the things that you do, and they
GROSS: You've been criticizing how public health authorities behaved during
the influenza pandemic of 1918. The surgeon general came out with a list of
things to do. Let me go over some of his advice and tell me what you make of
this. OK. Avoid needless crowding. That sounds like good advice.
Mr. BARRY: Right.
GROSS: Smother your coughs and sneezes.
Mr. BARRY: Correct. Good advice.
GROSS: Food will win the war help it by choosing and chewing your food well.
Mr. BARRY: Obviously, meaningless.
GROSS: Right. Don't let the waste products of digestion accumulate. Is that
a euphemistic way of telling us something that I don't quite get?
Mr. BARRY: It would mean--I think one of the other things he might have
said--or, if not the surgeon general himself--was common, keep the bowels
open. In other words, go to the bathroom. That's sort of a leftover from the
Hippocratic view of the body that disease is a result of an imbalance in the
body. And, of course, that had absolutely nothing to do with influenza.
GROSS: Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves, seek to make nature
your ally, not your prisoner.
Mr. BARRY: Utterly meaningless and useless advice.
GROSS: So some of the advice coming out of the surgeon general's office was
good and some of it was useless and...
Mr. BARRY: Ridiculous.
Mr. BARRY: Right.
GROSS: Did that help, again, people lose confidence in what the authorities
were telling them?
Mr. BARRY: Absolutely. And, you know, the Journal of the American Medical
Association was criticizing this advice as well and urging doctors to be far
more aggressive in quarantines and things like that in public closures of
public places. But the public health officials in various localities, almost
all of them, didn't do that.
GROSS: Would you say there are any lessons for today that we can learn from
Mr. BARRY: I think there are two basic lessons that come out of events in
1918, events that are detailed in the book. The first is that public health
officials need to tell the truth. And in 1918, they did not tell the truth.
As a result, people died who otherwise would have lived. And to be perfectly
honest, that's a lesson that has clearly not yet been learned. For example,
in the case of SARS last year, China definitely did not tell the truth about
that virus. And, in fact, the World Health Organization has in place, because
of 1918, a monitoring system looking for the next influenza virus that is
going to jump from birds to people. And initially, they thought SARS was that
virus, and it wasn't, but it allowed them to jump on SARS, to put their system
into play and contain SARS. But if it had been influenza, then they would
never have been able to contain it because China lied for several months. And
if influenza had that much of a head start, it would have been around the
world before anybody would have known it.
GROSS: Having written this book about the flu of 1918 and how many millions
and millions of people it killed, do you worry a lot about flu epidemics today
or about the re-emergence of SARS?
Mr. BARRY: Well, SARS really doesn't worry me. Even if it does re-emerge,
you know, clearly, it can be contained. And SARS is not a very contagious
disease. Influenza does worry me. Influenza does need to be taken seriously.
I think anyone who knows anything about the virus will tell you that it is
inevitable that at some point in time another influenza virus is going to jump
from birds to people. And we need to be ready for that and I frankly don't
think that right now we have resources devoted to that. And when that event
happens, we would probably have about six months to make a vaccine,
manufacture it and distribute tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of
doses. That is going to be a very, very difficult challenge. It's--we also
need to stockpile anti-viral drugs. There are drugs that we have that can
mitigate the impact of an influenza attack and we are--we would run out of
them very rapidly if there were a major outbreak.
GROSS: Well, John M. Barry, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BARRY: Thank you.
GROSS: John M. Barry is the author of "The Great Influenza." I'm Terry Gross
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: `If you are in New York,' says Robert Sullivan,`you are within close
proximity to one or more rats having sex.' Coming up we'll talk with Sullivan,
he's written a new book about the dangerous repulsive and randy rodents. It's
based in part on his observations of a colony of rats and a trash-filled
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Interview: Robert Sullivan discusses his new book "Rats"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
`Rats command a perverse celebrity status: nature's mobsters, flora and
fauna's serial killers,' writes Robert Sullivan in his new book "Rats." They
breed in filth, and they carry disease. In fact, they spread the plague, the
Black Death of the Middle Ages. Centuries later they're still all around us,
even when they're hiding out of sight. It wasn't difficult for Robert
Sullivan to find a colony of rats to study. He chose a trash-filled alley
just a block or two from Wall Street and what used to be the World Trade
Center. He waited night after night to watch the rats come out and feed.
After also traveling with exterminators and doing historical research, he
wrote his book "Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's
Most Unwanted Inhabitants." He's also the author of "The Meadowlands" and "A
Whale Hunt" and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times
Let's start with a short reading from his rat journal describing one evening
in his rat alley.
Mr. ROBERT SULLIVAN (Author, "Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of
the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants"): (Reading) `6:50, out across Fulton
Street, the garbage from the Burger King is dragged out, as I imagine this
happening at fast-food restaurants all over New York at around this time. A
small mountain of garbage bags form, a vile and grease-dripping, sedimentary
New York City occurrence that nightly turns the streets into a miniature
badlands to be eroded by morning, assuming the sanitation workers arrive,
after which there will be dark stains on the concrete, like sweat on the
morning rocks of a mountain.
6:57, more garbage, more rats, so many more that it's becoming difficult to
concentrate. There are too many rats now, more than a dozen visible at any
time, squads constantly surfacing, resurfacing. In the foreground are the
young rats; in the back, the larger rats, the rats that must be older given
their size. When I venture up with binoculars, I can see their modeled coats,
the bite marks--on one, a gashlike scar. I see also specialty diversions, rat
performers in a circus of trash affording much entertainment for the
alley-watcher. A rat climbs up a garbage bag, stops at the summit, appears to
look around. The rat jumps and nearly straight up--in fact, jumps for what my
later measurements will show to be one foot up, up and onto the old ledge of a
boarded up window. The rat walks along the ledge and turns behind the rusted,
old, steel window bars to face the alley again, then lowers himself down onto
a bag that close to the wall, a bag that is inaccessible from the alley floor.
7:15, the rats are drunk on food, I think. Technically speaking, all a rat
needs is three to four ounces of food a day. But these rats seem to be
greatly exceeding that amount. And wouldn't you? It's not at all difficult
to picture the rat eating on its food source until the food source is
destroyed, cleaned out, until the rat must move on to the next alley, the next
street, the next neighborhood.'
GROSS: That's Robert Sullivan reading from his new book "Rats."
Robert, why did you want to spend a year observing rats in a New York alley?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I feel like saying it wasn't my fault.
Mr. SULLIVAN: I didn't mean to do it. I don't really--sometimes I don't know
why at all, and other times it seems I can't believe I wasn't doing it sooner.
I like to go places where rats tend to be: in, you know, alleys and swamps
and garbage dumps, all the places that nobody wants to go to. Turns out that
rats are kind of the theme park mascot of my places that I like.
Mr. SULLIVAN: But the other thing that happened was I was writing a book
about a whale hunt, about a Native-American tribe, and they were hunting a
whale. And everybody, of course, came up to say, `You can't hunt a whale.'
The tribe said, `We should be able to maybe.' And some people said, `You
shouldn't.' It was a big to-do about whales. And I started reading about
whales and why we kind of love whales. And I read about how we went from
being a whaling nation--been whaling, you know, the whales out of the world
pretty much--to being a nation that kind of loves whales, loves
dolphins--especially loves dolphins. And we feel we're on a
parallel--sometimes some people think we can communicate with dolphins; we're
like dolphins. And then I started thinking, `Well, what's the creature that
nobody feels like they can think like, the creature that nobody wants to say,
"I went swimming with rats tonight, you know, in a lagoon in Florida?"'
Mr. SULLIVAN: And it ends up being rats. So this is the creature that I want
to check out.
GROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So how did you choose your spot to observe rats?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, I have a friend from high school, my friend Dave, and we
still hang out even since high school. And we decided to kind of go out
looking for the perfect place to look for rats. Of course, we asked our wives
if it was all right if we went out after dinner to look for rats.
Mr. SULLIVAN: And my wife said that would be fine as long as I went with
Dave. It's very important to her that I'm with somebody when I'm out there
looking at rats, although after a while I was going alone. I got to know my
alley. But we just kind of went into downtown Manhattan at night. I'd
gotten some tips from some exterminators that around Seaport would be a good
area. First, we found this abandoned McDonald's. It was kind of filled with
rats. What was amazing was initially we looked in the McDonald's--we went by
it maybe a couple times that night, or we looked in it at first and saw
nothing. But then we went back, and we realized it was filled with rats; we
just didn't know how to see them. And this is an exciting thing to learn
Mr. SULLIVAN: ...is that there's all this stuff going on in places that you
don't know stuff is going on. You can't see rats; that doesn't mean they're
not there. Anyway, we ended up going beyond that to this little alley that
was kind of between two restaurants. And it was just, we realized, really
full of rats. And, moreover, there was this great kind of multicultural food
supply. And, finally, this was just a great small alley that I felt like I'd
maybe seen once but hadn't seen. People were walking by and not noticing it,
and that felt like the perfect place, a place that everybody passed by and
GROSS: Now rats are nocturnal animals. When do they start coming out?
Mr. SULLIVAN: They come out on cue. It's amazing. They come out right after
the sun sets. Just before it gets dark, they come out first. And they do an
initial feeding. As I'm saying this, I can't believe that this really
happens, but it really happens. They kind of get an initial, you know,
run-through; it's sort of like breakfast. Then if it's a heavy alley, an
alley with a lot of garbage, you'll see them continue to be out. But
sometimes they'll go back into their nests, and in this particular alley that
meant that they would sometimes go back down through the cracks in the
cobblestones, back down into the street, into the hill, which is very, very
amazing. But, anyway, then they'll come out again kind of in the middle of
the night, and they'll oftentimes come out for another big feeding before
sunset. It's the reverse of our day.
GROSS: I always associate rats with garbage. Do rats have a preference for
food that's rotting, or if we left, like, fresh food out for them, would they
be eating that as much as the garbage?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, rats like garbage, but there's different kinds of
garbage. And many people think of garbage rightfully as garbage. But if you
take apart garbage, you see that, you know, there's all different parts to it.
And rats won't eat rancid food. They won't go for stale or bad food
necessarily. They'll take what they like first. And I think it's written in
the rat literature that a rat might starve in an alley full of raw carrots.
Rats, generally speaking, are not crazy about their vegetables. They like
fried foods, they like fatty foods. A really fun thing about the rat food
Mr. SULLIVAN: ...is that it matched up very nicely with the human food
GROSS: Right (laughs).
Mr. SULLIVAN: And, you know, like Gourmet magazine, I can just see a rat
sitting down and saying, `Oh, yeah, I've got to make that out of last week's
garbage.' So, you know, a rat discerns within garbage. And another
interesting thing about rat food and garbage is that rats develop kind of a
preference, a palate, that matches the neighborhood. And I'd sort of heard
this. I heard from exterminators who's said that, `Oh, my rats like this kind
of spicy food,' and, `My rats like this kind of food.' And it's pretty
interesting to think that a rat would develop an interest in the food that
matched the culture, the ethnicity that lived in that neighborhood. It's
GROSS: So what was, like, the creepiest or scariest moment for you when you
were in the alley that you adopted observing the rats?
Mr. SULLIVAN: There were many creepy, disturbing moments. But the most sort
of rat-oriented, rat-freaky moment would definitely have to be when I was in
this one alley with my friend, Dave, and another friend, Matt. And I had to
kind of turn away people from going ratting with me. Oftentimes people would
say, you know, `Could I go to your rat alley?' And that's the kind of thing,
you can't let everybody go to your rat alley. It gets out of hand. So at one
point I did, though, bring a second friend when we were thinking about maybe
trapping rats and so forth, something that didn't work out the way I'd hoped.
Anyway, Matt and Dave were in the alley. And there was a guy named Derek(ph),
who was kind of living around the alley, and he seemed to have some control
over the rats in this alley. And this was another alley from my alley, but it
was definitely a rat-filled alley. And he orchestrated the movement of the
rats, Derek did. And Derek began calling upon the rats and beating with a
stick and beating metal, and the rats then started running out all at once.
And we went over the numbers immediately after--Dave and Matt and I went over
the numbers. And there were definitely--you know, we want to say thousands of
rats, but there weren't. There were somewhere between 100 and 200 rats.
There were a lot of rats, and they were all coming down the alley. This is a
tough thing to experience if you're just a person in sneakers and light
camping gear. And here comes this pack of rats, which, of course, I'd read
about many times but never seen. And the pack of rats was coming. And what
was most amazing was as soon as they hit this corner, a corner of an old
abandoned building, they all took a left. And it was just like watching
everybody come off of Lexington Avenue...
Mr. SULLIVAN: ...and sneak into that small subway entrance that's around 59th
or 58th. Everybody went down a single file. You know, it went from crazed,
mass pack of rats to single file, `OK, around the corner, we're going down
this hole now.' It was incredible.
GROSS: Well, you know, although you were really fascinated to find this alley
that was filled with rats every night, it's not a good thing that this city
has alleys like that. You were able to find it pretty easily. Do you think,
like, the Health Department knew about it?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, I made a mistake in mentioning one alley that I was kind
of thinking about checking out to the Health Department, which I have to say
is a very good Health Department. And very shortly thereafter there were no
more rats in that alley. So, you know, I tried to not say anything about the
alley that I settled on for my studies just to see what would happen if I
didn't interfere with it.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Sullivan. His new book is called "Rats." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Sullivan. We're talking
about his new book, "Rats." And he spent a year off and on observing rats in
one alley near the former World Trade Center, and then he also did a lot of
research on rats: their behavior, the history of rats and so on.
I thought of your research studying rats and September 11th as being just, you
know, totally unrelated. But after September 11th a lot of public health
researchers were worried that there might be some kind of terrorism through
rats, like some spreading of plague, for instance. So exterminating rats
actually became a very important part of terrorism prevention after September
11th, and you were able to observe some of that. Can you talk, first, about
what specifically the fears were?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, the fears were of the plague because plague is, you know,
one of the weapons of choice for bioterrorism, as I understand it from talking
to CDC and so on and from talking to the New York Health Department. And rats
spread the plague. Spreading plague via rats would not be the best way to go
about it if you wanted, for some crazy reason, to do that. There's other ways
that you would go about it. But this is the--rats once wiped a huge portion,
as many people know, of Europe, like a third of Europe, during the Black
Death. It wasn't rats, though. It was the fleas on the rats. So after 9/11,
people came in and said, `Well, wait a minute. You know, what's going to
happen with rats?' Well, there's a lot of stuff around. There's not going to
be a lot of people around. So rats will have--you know, the population might
explode, and it did explode, except the city moved in to kind of circle the
area with what they called bait stations. So they put out poison all around
the World Trade Center to try to stop a huge explosion in the rat population.
GROSS: Was it effective?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, people came in afterwards and said, `Oh, there were rats
all around there.' The one thing I know is if they hadn't done what they'd
done, there would have been a lot of rats. I mean, I saw in different
neighborhoods that there were rats, but they definitely prevented a lot of
rats. But an interesting thing: If there's plague in your city and rats were
spreading it, then you wouldn't want to necessarily come in and kill the rats.
You'd think, `OK, we have plague. Let's get rid of the rats.' But, in fact,
you would maybe want to keep rats alive and think about a way to get rid of
the fleas on the rats because if you kill the rats, then the fleas, infected
with plague, would jump off the rats and onto either the next rat or, since
you're killing rats, the next warm-blooded mammal it could find. And being a
warm-blooded mammal myself, you know, you want to watch out with that. So
that was an interesting thing to learn that if there was plague, you wouldn't
necessarily want to kill the rats.
GROSS: Now I was surprised to read that warfarin, which is an anticoagulant
that is prescribed to a lot of people, particularly often after stroke--it's
to prevent blood clotting--that's one of the things that is used as a poison
to kill rats. How does it work in rats?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I think they have sort of an updated version of warfarin. They
use anticoagulants of different, you know, brand names. But it basically
causes the rat to bleed to death, and it's pretty disgusting. But the rats
have developed a resistance to anticoagulants, which strikes fear in the
hearts of anybody who pays attention to the issue because suddenly you're
saying the rats are stronger than the poison. And this first surfaced in the
1970s, and people in the cities talked about superrats that could survive on
poison. But they have had reports of rats eating poison, which is a lot of
times grain with poison, but eating the grain and surviving just on the
GROSS: Mmm. As horrible as what you're saying is, it reminds me of
cockroaches, who seem to develop a resistance to poisons and who--you know,
everybody says that cockroaches would survive a nuclear blast. Do cockroaches
and rats inhabit the same places?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, yeah. And rats survive nuclear blasts, too. In fact,
they went to--in the South Pacific, where they had nuclear tests. A
rodentologist or, actually, a biologist who studied rats went in to see how
the rats survived. And they did fine in their burrows. They found out later
that there was just a sort of a slight, I want to say, imperfection, but
that's not the word, but a slight chance to their jaw shape. But other than
that, the rat survived the nuclear blasts. They live in the same places as
cockroaches. They live in the places that we neglect. And rats are all about
neglect. And you look, for instance, the map of rat bites in a given city or
anywhere, and you see the places that people are forgetting to care about.
Rats are this indicator species, this blip that says, `You know what? Maybe
that neighborhood--maybe we ought to put more funds into that neighborhood.
Maybe that's the place we should care more.'
GROSS: My guest is Robert Sullivan. His new book is called "Rats." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Sullivan. He's the
author of the new book "Rats."
You not only spent a lot of time watching rats on the street. You also did a
lot of reading about rats, and you learned a lot about rat characteristics.
Maybe other people knew this--I did not--about the strength of rats' teeth.
Talk about how strong they are and what they can do.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Rats' teeth can bite through metal and concrete. There's a
scale called Mohs Scale of Hardness, and they're a 5.5. And that's better
than steel. They can chew through anything. And I know an exterminator for
New York City who adds glass to the concrete when he patches holes in
GROSS: Why does he do that?
Mr. SULLIVAN: He does that so that the rat can't chew through the concrete.
He'll hit glass, and it'll irritate his mouth.
GROSS: Wow. That's really interesting. Is that effective?
Mr. SULLIVAN: It's effective. It works for now. It works for now.
GROSS: And what about rat reproduction? Like, how frequently do they
reproduce? How many rats can one female rat spawn in a month or a year?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Rats--I think a female can have between four and seven litters
per year. And I think each litter you're talking between eight and 12 in a
litter. And, you know, I read all kinds of numbers on how many rats there can
be if that kind of thing goes on frequently, as it does. And the one thing
that always stands out in my head is Hans Zinsser, who wrote "Rats, Lice
and History," this amazing book about sort of disease and history. He
compares the rats' ability to, you know, generate more rats to another
species. He compares it to man.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Because the other species that does a really good job of moving
into a place and eating everything up and taking over and then running out of
resources and fighting amongst themselves is humans.
GROSS: In your book you write that a lot of people confided their rat stories
in you. Tell us one of your favorite rat stories that you were told by
Mr. SULLIVAN: The best rat story ever--and it combines so many features of
the other rat stories--is my friend Stan's rat story. And, you know, I made
sure I got it as exactly as I could from Stan because I cannot tell it as well
as Stan tells it. But Stan basically came home, heard something in the
bathroom, heard a scratching noise; went into the bathroom and, as he put it,
`screamed like a girl.' No offense to either Stan or to girls.
Mr. SULLIVAN: And then he went back in. He sort of made a Scotch and like,
`What am I going to do? Oh, my God,' and then, you know, came up with a plan.
He'd read somewhere, back of his mind, peanut butter--`They like peanut
butter.' So he found stuff in the house that he tells me--poisonous, put it
in with the peanut butter, put it back in the bathroom--because, you know, all
of a sudden all your environmental ethics, there's a rat in the bathroom, you
know what I mean? That's what it comes down to, life comes down to, is a rat
in the bathroom. And, anyway, he went in, put the peanut butter on the floor
and made another Scotch and then went back in to look and see if anything
happened and saw the peanut butter untouched and then, I think, if I'm getting
it right, you know, saw the rat up on the ledge of the bathroom, screamed like
a girl again, went out, made more Scotch. I don't know how he was able to do
this after so many Scotches. But, anyway, it ends up with him turning on the
tub and hoping that he can drown the rat. But then he remembers that rats
swim, and the rat begins to impress him with a long swimming thing.
Now Stan is panicked, and he's run back to the kitchen and taken out the
last-ditch, rat-poisoning effort, which is, I believe, Comet, the household
cleaner. He pours a bunch of it in the bathtub. Of course, I mean, he's had
a couple Scotches now, so he was able to get that close to a swimming rat.
But he pours a bunch of it into the bathtub, such that it forms this, you
know, green thing on top of the water. The rat swims towards the green thing
and, at the moment that it reaches the green thing, keels over and dies.
GROSS: (Laughs) And then he had to figure out how to dispose of the rat.
Mr. SULLIVAN: But he managed to use that thing that is so ubiquitous in
cities, which is the plastic garbage bag--pardon me, the plastic grocery bag,
which if you fill it with a dead rat from the bathtub and cut holes in the
bottom, it drains easily, and then you go to the trash chute in your apartment
GROSS: And it's got handles, so you easily just carry it out (laughs).
Mr. SULLIVAN: It's got handles. It just seems like the perfect drowned rat
GROSS: And, finally, for somebody who found rats in their home, would a cat
be an effective way of keeping the rats in check?
Mr. SULLIVAN: No. Cats can be killed by rats. This is a very important
point. You must remember a cat can eat a juvenile rat, could kill a juvenile
rat, could stop you from getting rats. But if you have rats and you put a cat
in the room with it, it would be like putting me in the ring with Muhammad
GROSS: Hmm. Was there a time in your life when you couldn't tell the
difference between a mouse and a rat?
Mr. SULLIVAN: (Laughs) No. I think that you might think that you don't know
the difference between a mouse and a rat, but when you meet the rat, you will
know that it is a rat.
GROSS: How will you know?
Mr. SULLIVAN: You will know because it will be so much bigger than a mouse.
And you will know because of your reaction, which will be intense. And I know
one exterminator who says he could always tell on the phone when people have
rats. Sometimes they only say, `Oh, I have rats. I have rats.' But when
they call him up and they have rats, he said, `You can hear it in their voice.
You know they have rats.'
GROSS: (Laughs) Well, Robert, now that this book is behind you, I wish you a
life without rats.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.
GROSS: (Laughs) And thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SULLIVAN: I wish you a life without rats as well. Thank you.
GROSS: Robert Sullivan is the author of "Rats: Observations on the History &
Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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