Rabies, a viral disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causes convulsions, hallucinations, and an inability to swallow liquid—hence its earlier name, hydrophobia, or “fear of water.” Until Frenchman Louis Pasteur’s 1885 creation of a vaccine that successfully treated rabies in humans, the bite from a rabid animal almost always resulted in a death excruciating to endure and horrifying to witness. Pasteur’s discovery was publicized in Arkansas, but it would be almost thirty years before the state had a treatment center using his methods, though it lasted only briefly.
Two months after Pasteur’s breakthrough, four New Jersey children who had been bitten by a rabid dog traveled to France and were cured using the vaccine. News of these boys’ recovery was published nationwide, including in the Arkansas Gazette, and within a few years, even small town newspapers publicized the treatment. The first two Pasteur Institutes in the United States were founded in 1890 in New York City and Chicago, Illinois. Other major cities followed, though many of these institutes were short lived.
In 1890, four Plumerville (Conway County) children were bitten by a rabid dog, prompting the Arkansas Gazette to call for Little Rock (Pulaski County) physicians to “investigate and apply” Pasteur’s methods. It was not until August 1912, however, that Dr. Loyd O. Thompson established the Pasteur Institute, receiving a government license to manufacture and sell antirabic virus through the Arkansas Pasteur Institute and Hygienic Laboratory in Little Rock. In late 1914, however, Thompson moved to Hot Springs (Garland County) to specialize in treating venereal disease, and Little Rock’s Pasteur Institute ceased existence. The Hygienic Laboratory continued to operate and to perform tests on animals suspected of having rabies.
People bitten by rabid animals could seek treatment at the nearest Pasteur Institutes in St. Louis, Missouri (founded 1900); Austin, Texas (founded 1903); or Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (in existence around 1909). The St. Louis and New York facilities were the most popular; however, such treatments sometimes came too late to save lives. Even when Little Rock’s institute was in operation, doctors around the state could administer the vaccine by buying it from out-of-state drug companies, via mail order. Parke-Davis & Co. of Detroit, Michigan, made the vaccine available at least as early as 1913, advertising that they shipped hypodermics of vaccine directly to physicians and pharmacists. By 1917, the Eli Lilly Company of Indianapolis advertised that it would ship daily doses of vaccine for the fourteen-day treatment. Rabies injections were also available through the University of Arkansas School of Medicine (now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) in Little Rock in the 1920s, and from county health units by the 1930s.
Prior to Pasteur’s discovery, and throughout the state for decades after it, two therapies were commonly used to treat rabid bites. (These were employed prophylactically—that is, preventatively. There was no cure once the patient exhibited rabies symptoms.) The preferred method of doctors was excising, then cauterizing, the bite by burning the site with a hot iron or an acid.
The second therapy was to apply a “madstone.” These “stones” were porous, calcified deposits presumably found in the stomach, brain, or intestines of deer. Such stones were rare and highly prized—and never loaned out. Instead, the patient would be brought to the madstone, which would then be soaked in warm milk, applied to the wound, and left in place for as long as it stuck naturally—often days at a time. When the stone dropped off, the process would be repeated until it refused to adhere, at which time it was believed to have drawn all poison from the bite.
Though the name “madstone” was coined in the United States around 1864, the concept of a stone that could extract poison dates back to the 1300s in Europe and India. In India, snake-stones were used to draw venom out of snakebites. By the 1500s in Europe, the bezoar (an Arabic word for “antidote”), found in the digestive tracts of deer, was believed to counteract poison. Both such stones were applied to wounds in the same manner as the madstone. Some madstones used in the Ozarks supposedly came here from England and were believed to be more than 200 years old.
Though madstones would now be considered, at best, a folk cure, physicians used them, too. Dr. J. F. McAdams of Searcy (White County), who practiced medicine from the 1860s to the 1890s, reportedly paid $1,000 for a stone that, by 1891, had more than forty cures attributed to it. Newspaper accounts mention many instances in which madstones (and, for that matter, cauterization) failed to work, but people continued to put faith in the stones well into the 1900s. In some cases, patients sought treatment from more than one madstone; others used cauterization or a madstone before traveling out of state for the Pasteur treatment.
“The madstone is pronounced a fake and its use does not cure rabies,” warned the Green Forest Tribune in 1904. Anyone using one was “guilty of deliberate murder,” and those seeking treatment were advised by the Carroll County newspaper to seek a Pasteur hospital and injections.
During a “mad dog scare,” towns would, as a precaution, institute the mass killing of all stray and un-muzzled dogs running loose on the chance that they might have been infected. In Arkadelphia (Clark County) in 1881, more than 190 dogs were killed after a local man was bitten, and so great was the fear of this disease that even valuable hunting dogs and pets were destroyed as a precaution. Starting in the 1920s, the practice of vaccinating dogs for rabies brought about an end to the widespread threat from this disease.
For additional information:
Duvall, Harold (Joe Bill). Hoopsnakes and Horseshoes: The Memoirs of Moreland. N.p.: 1993.
Hansen, Bert. “America’s First Medical Breakthrough: How Popular Excitement about a French Rabies Cure in 1885 Raised New Expectations for Medical Progress.” American Historical Review 103 (April 1998): 373–418.
“Personals Column.” Journal of the Arkansas Medical Association 9.3 (1912): 81.
Scholle, Sarah Hudson. The Pain in Prevention: A History of Public Health in Arkansas. Little Rock: Arkansas Department of Health, 1990.
Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. Springdale, Arkansas.
Thompson, Loyd O. “Rabies.” Journal of the Arkansas Medical Association 10.5 (1913): 120–123.
Last Updated: 02/07/2022