The Early History of the Lab Rat
Before they became a researcher’s best friend, they were guests of the Queen
Growing up as child in Atlanta, I only knew a few things about rats: they carried disease, they were a pest among society, and according to Saturday morning cartoons they could teach turtles to become ninjas. Now (apart from that final point) a lot of people I have talked to about rats seem to have a similar opinion. This is mostly due to how rats are portrayed in the media. You never hear on the news about rats saving lives in the laboratory; you only hear about how they carry disease and destroy crops.
So what changed my opinion of rats? Well, I transferred to the College of Charleston my junior year to finish my degree in animal behavior, and I had the utmost honor to get to work with the greatest rat of all time - Cornelius. I took a lab in animal behavior modification and worked with Cornelius, a Long-Evans rat, for a whole year. After the class, I worked as sole animal caretaker for the psychology department, and that’s where my passion for rats and for being an animal caretaker grew. Now that you know a little bit more about me let’s talk about the history and domestication of the lab rat.
The beginning of this story is sadly where many stories ended—the Black Plague. Also known as the Black Death, the plague killed a third of the population during mid-14th century in Europe. Growing up as kid, I was told that rats were the ones carrying the disease, and spread it throughout Europe. However, new scientific evidence has shown that it was really the Oriental rat flea to blame. The plague originated among the plains of central Asia, where the Oriental rat flea is known to make its home before becoming a parasite for the black rat, which in turn stowed away on trade ships.
Rising from the ashes of the Black Plague came a new profession in Europe—the rat catchers. Similar to a modern-day exterminator, the rat catchers were employed to control the rat populations around Europe during early 19th century. The rat catcher would get work by traveling to different towns and offering their services if there was a rat infestation. If the town didn’t have an infestation, an ambitious rat catcher might actually cause a rat problem for the town.
Rat catchers were also known to breed and raise rats of their own to sell to rat baiting pits. Rat baiting was a popular blood sport during this time in which bets were made to see how many rats a dog could kill in a certain amount of time. Terriers were known to be the superior breed for this sport. Thankfully rat baiting is illegal today, but at the time rat baiting was so popular there were known to be at least 30 pits going at a time within London. With so many pits you needed a lot of rats, and the rat catchers would provide them.
The most popular rat catcher of all time was Jack Black, the self-appointed “Queen’s Official Rat Catcher.” He wore a suit with a top hat, and a sash with metal rats and the Queen’s initials. Throughout his journeys, Jack noticed many different colors of rats, and particularly enjoyed the albino ones. He started breeding and domesticating them to become pets for royalty including Queen Victoria, who was known to have a few rats in a gilded cage within the palace.
Albino rats were first used in a scientific experiment in 1828 for a fasting study to measure the quality of proteins inside the body. With this distinction, rats are known to be the first animal domesticated for scientific purposes. Rats didn’t change much until 1906, when the Wistar Institute of Philadelphia, under the guidance of Henry Donaldson and Helen Dean King, paved the way for the standardization of the common day laboratory rat. Through selective inbreeding they created the first rat to serve as a model organism used in biological and medical research. A majority of lab rat strains descend from this original colony (Long-Evans/Sprague Dawley).
Ever since the innovation of the Wistar rat and the many other rat strains that have descended from it, rats have given so much to helping us understand the human body and its inner workings. Make sure to thank our furry little friends next time you see one. They’ve been on one interesting journey.