Blast From the Past: Hans Ruesch and Anti-Research Idiocy

Not much mention of Hans Ruesch is made these days, even on animal rights sites and e-mail lists, but Ruesch’s 1978 book Slaughter of the Innocents had a major influence on the animal rights movement’s anti-research agenda. And since some people still remember him, such as the author of this fawning profile, so it is worth briefly looking at the original idiot who inspired the animal rights movement when it was just beginning to coalesce.

Ruesch’s book was originally published in Italy, before being published in Great Britain and the United States. Ruesch has always claimed the book was “suppressed” by its publisher, Bantam, which let the book go out of print citing poor sales. Bantam also had to be concerned about Ruesch’s habit of libeling people in his books.

Future, which picked up the book after Bantam dropped it, was forced to settle an early libel lawsuit with heart transplant pioneer Christiaan Barnard, for example, over claims Ruesch made in the book that Barnard was mentally ill. Much of Ruesch’s later venom was reserved for animal rights groups and activists whom he deemed were not sufficiently anti-research or whom wouldn’t simply republish Ruesch’s nonsensical claims (Peter Singer won a judgment against Ruesch and the British Anti-Vivisection Association in 1993).

Obviously the space is lacking here for a thorough debunking of all of Ruesch’s claims, but one of his oddest claims will amply give a view into how he thinks. Years before other nutcases would arise to deny that HIV caused AIDS or that AIDS was even a real disease, Ruesch applied the same sort of thinking to rabies. That’s right, Ruesch challenges the idea that rabies even exists, much less that Pasteur developed a vaccine to treat it.

In Slaughter of the Innocent, Ruesch wrote,

Some informed doctors [!] believe that rabies, as a separate and distinguishable disease, exists only in animals and not in man, and that what is diagnosed as rabies is often tetanus (lockjaw), which has similar symptoms. Contamination of any kind of wound can cause tetanus, and it is interesting to note that today in Germany those who get bitten by a dog are regularly given just an anti-tetanus shot. According to Germany’s most authoritative weekly, exactly 5 Germans are supposed to have died of rabies in 20 years (Der Spiegel, 18/1972, p.175). But how can anyone be sure that they died of rabies? Hundreds die of tetanus.

. ..

Pasteur never identified the rabies virus. Today, everything concerning this malady is still more insecure than at Pasteur’s time.

Only one thing is sure: ever since Pasteur developed his “vaccine,” the cases of death from rabies have increased, not diminished.

This sort of nonsense was a bit much for even those animal rights groups that have no problem distorting the history of medical research. A number of groups still recommend Ruesch’s book, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but he’s clearly a marginalized figure within a marginalized movement. In fact animal rights groups generally just don’t talk about rabies since the key role that animal research played in its discovery and treatment.

The current state of rabies vaccination also illustrates the tradeoffs often attendant in the reduce, refine, replace efforts to minimize the number of animals used in medical research. There are currently three vaccines for rabies, two of which are derived from human cell lines and the third — and newest — vaccine which is grown in chicken embryos. Why create a new animal-based vaccine when two perfectly good human cell-based vaccines already existed?

The answer, of course, is money. The chicken embryo-based vaccine is significantly cheaper to produce than the human cell-derived vaccines. Since most cases of rabies occur in the developing world, producing a vaccine as cheaply as possible is paramount to preventing death in the areas where it is still a major problem.

For Ruesch, of course, none of that matters — animal research can’t possibly ever lead to advances in treating human medical conditions, and if the facts contradict that, so much worse for the facts.


The Man Who Cried “The Empress is Naked!”. Guenady, December 2004.

Rabies vaccination. Hans Ruesch.

Recommendation of the Immunization Practices Advisory Committee (ACIP) Rabies Prevention — United States, 1984. MMWR 33(28); 393-402, 407-9, July 20, 1984.

Getting Started. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Undated, Accessed: March 7, 2005.