Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Jack Black and the Wistar Rat

A repost from March 2008

Jack Black was the official rat catcher for Queen Victoria. He wore a scarlet topcoat, waistcoat and breeches, and had a huge leather belt inset with cast-iron rats.

Black was, among other things, an accomplished dog breeder. Henry Mayhew, an English journalist and one of the founders of Punch magazine, quotes Black as saying:

"I had a little rat dog -- a black and tan terrier by the name of Billy which was the greatest stock dog in London of that day. He was the father of the greatest portion of small black tan dogs in London now. I've been offered a sovereign per pound (in weight) for some of my little terriers, but I wouldn't take that price .... My terrier dog was known to all the London fancy. As rat-killing dogs, there's no equal to that strain of black and tan terriers."

Jack Black had several sidelines to exterminating. He caught many rats and sold them for use in the rat pits -- an early form of double dipping that was ironic in that Queen Victoria sanctioned the RSPCA which was intent on driving the rat pits out of business.

In addition to exterminating and reselling rats, Black would occasionally catch unusual colored rats (albinos, dapples, yellows, hooded) and he began to breed these and sell off their progeny as pets (as he phrased it) "...to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages." Beatrix Potter was one of his customers, and even Queen Victoria kept a rat or two.

Black sold a small group of white rats to an animal dealer in France who bred them and sold them as pets to other people on the continent. These rats, in turn, were imported to Philadelphia where they served as the base genetic stock for the "Wistar Rat" used in labs all over the world (named after the Wistar Institute).

In a nutshell, the last rat pits of Victorian England led -- by a circuitous route -- to some of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the 20th Century. And we can thank Jack Black for all of it!


No comments: