The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis
Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
- Miksanek, Tony
- Date of entry: Mar-12-2015
In 1847, one of every six women whose babies were delivered by the medical students and supervising doctors at Allgemeine Krankenhaus (General Hospital) in Vienna died of puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever). In contrast, the incidence of this disease in women delivered by hospital midwives was dramatically lower and puerperal fever was quite rare when mothers had their babies born at home.While a few physicians (most notably Alexander Gordon and Oliver Wendell Holmes) realized that childbed fever was a contagious process, it was Semmelweis who identified the nature of the problem as stemming from the failure of obstetricians and medical students to wash their hands and change their clothing, especially after performing autopsies or doing surgery. He mandated that doctors and students wash with a disinfectant (chloride of lime) before examining any woman in labor.Despite the dramatic reduction of maternal mortality on his obstetrical unit, his ideas and methods were not well received. Semmelweis was reluctant to conduct experiments on animals to prove his theory and resisted publishing his findings in any medical journal. When he finally did write a book, The Etiology, the Concept, and the Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever, it was difficult to read and failed to impress many obstetrical experts.With his health failing and his behavior increasingly erratic and inappropriate, Semmelweis was committed to a state-run mental hospital. He died two weeks later. The official cause of death was sepsis secondary to an infection of his finger. The author is convinced, however, based on the autopsy report and findings upon exhumation of the body in 1963, that Semmelweis was beaten to death by the staff at the asylum. He may well have been suffering from Alzheimer's presenile dementia at the time.
W. W. Norton