cover image THE DOCTORS' PLAGUE: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis

THE DOCTORS' PLAGUE: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis

Sherwin B. Nuland, . . Norton, $21.95 (191pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05299-2

In 1847, one out of every six women who delivered a baby in the First Division at the Allgemeine Krankenhaus hospital in Vienna died of childbed fever, a situation mirrored at other medical facilities in Europe and the U.S. Bestselling author Nuland (How We Die), a clinical professor of surgery at Yale, details in lively descriptive writing just how Ignac Semmelweis, an assistant physician at Allgemeine Krankenhaus, uncovered the origin of this devastating epidemic. Although theories were advanced that attributed it to unhealthy conditions in the expectant mother's body, Semmelweis launched his own investigation. He traced the high mortality rate from this fever in the First Division to the medical doctors, who went straight from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies without washing their hands; they were, in fact, infecting their own patients. Semmelweis's doctrine was controversial in medical circles, Nuland explains, partly because the eccentric physician's self-destructive personality alienated possible supporters. Drawing on careful research, the author convincingly argues that, contrary to popular myth, Semmelweis was not a persecuted victim but, despite his brilliance, was his own worst enemy. He was committed to a public mental institution and, according to Nuland, probably suffered from Alzheimer's and died from beatings administered by hospital personnel. In this engrossing story, Nuland shows how Semmelweis's groundbreaking discovery of how childbed fever was transmitted was later validated by the work of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister. (Oct.)

FYI:This volume is the first in Norton's Great Discoveries series, which highlights scientific achievement.