I’ve been reading two excellent medical history volumes lately.
The one I’m mostly not here to talk about was the unexpectedly charming Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed. I highly recommend this book, the first by a new science writer I plan to keep an eye on. She has quite a way with words!
The book I want to talk about, though, is The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris. This book is about Joseph Lister of antiseptic fame and it’s also excellent. But one particular section caught my attention and it isn’t even about Lister himself.
Lister, of course, didn’t “invent” antiseptics or germ theory, he created a method for using antiseptics in medical practice that was revolutionary and he absolutely deserves his fame. Most of the book is dedicated to the path that brought him to the right place and the right time to save lives, but the author also describes some of the antecedents that gave Lister a boost.
One was Ignaz Semmelweis, who in the early 19th century solved the problem of childbirth fever. You might have heard the story even if his name is unfamiliar. You see, the hospital he worked in had two wards of pregnant women, one group who were attended by midwives and one who were attended by medical students. And the latter group died of childbirth fever at a much higher rate.
Semmelweis wondered if the difference might be that the medical students came straight from conducting an autopsy to assisting in childbirth. Germ theory was essentially nonexistent at this point, so he wasn’t sure exactly what the problem was, but there seemed to be a correlation. So he insisted the medical students had to wash their hands in chlorinated water and lo…the rate of infection dropped almost instantly from 18% to 1-2%.
Obviously once all the doctors heard about this, they started washing their hands and infection rates dropped everywhere and it was awesome, right?
Yeah, no. Of course not. The doctors and students got mad that Semmelweis was blaming them and refused to change anything. I knew that part of the story. What I didn’t know was the end of the story.
His behavior became so erratic and embarrassing to his colleagues that he was eventually confined to a mental institute, where he spent his final days raging about childbed fever and the doctors who refused to wash their hands.
And this quote…this is what broke me. I know why the doctors refused to listen to him, I know all about why people refuse to believe they make mistakes and double down on their ignorance. But can you imagine how Semmelweis felt?
I don’t know if he was really mentally ill or if he just pissed them off so much they locked him up. But could you really blame him?
This guy solved a problem that had plagued the profession (pun intended) since the beginning. He figured out how to save lives! And it was easy! And cheap! And safe! And could be implemented immediately!
And everybody told him to go to hell and kept showing up to infect their patients. He had to stand by and watch his colleagues kill their patients via neglect.
I don’t care if he was the most mentally stable person in the world to begin with, I feel like that might be enough to make anyone mentally ill.
I feel for Dr. Semmelweis. I wish he could have known that eventually doctors would wash their damn hands.