Beneficial Society for the Prevention of Hydrophobia founded in Baltimore

Cartoon of the hydrophobia panic of 1826
Cartoon of the hydrophobia panic of 1826, courtesy HistoryToday

On January 26, 1814, a group of local doctors, including Dr. Henry Wilkins, James Smith, William Donaldson, Samuel Baker, James Page, and Elisha DeButts, established the “Beneficial Society for prevention of hydrophobia.”

Hydrophobia (better known today as rabies) was a terrifying prospect in many American cities throughout the 19th century. Stray dogs ran rampant and a single bite from an infected animal might mean a painful death. In his brief medical history of Baltimore, Dr. John Morris observed, “Hydrophobia is noted as a cause of death in all the early records of the city but there are only one or two deaths reported annually.”

In 1814, the cause of the disease still remained a mystery but Dr. Henry Wilkins, one of the founding members of the Beneficial Society, sketched out his approach to treatment in an 1811 letter that prescribed the application of a caustic paste onto any bite from an infected animal. Thankfully, a more effective cure arrived in 1885 when Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux developed the first rabies vaccine.

Read more on the 19th-century history of rabies in Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys  on HistoryToday, 2007.

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