Graduation Year

2010

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.A.

Degree Granting Department

History

Major Professor

Golfo Alexopoulos, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Giovanna Benadusi, Ph.D.

Committee Member

David Johnson, Ph.D.

Keywords

childbed fever, Semmelweis, history of medicine, history of science, intellectual history

Abstract

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, a bacterial infection which we now

know to be caused primarily by a streptococcus, was killing women in childbirth at an

alarming rate. The disease, called puerperal, or childbed, fever, was being transmitted

primarily from doctor to patient by a doctor’s unwashed hands and filthy, contaminated

clothing and linens. Despite this evident and, in retrospect, obvious vector, the doctors of

this period never discovered how to prevent their patients from dying a gruesome and

painful death. Many physicians wrote extensive accounts of the illness but often ended

their works in despair, unable to find the cause. Much of the historical literature blames

this befuddlement on personality traits of the physicians, arguing that egos and

professional hostilities prevented the kind of cooperation that could have led to progress.

This study attempts to show that this failure was not a product of personalities but

of the modern physicians’ assumptions and logic. The assumptions were the stillpowerful,

but often unnoticed, dictates about the human body handed down from ancient

Greek medicine. The logical errors were a product of pre-scientific notions of definition,

explanation, and evidence. The author argues that it was not a lack of data that thwarted

the physicians, but a series of these intellectual roadblocks that prevented them from

understanding and extended the terror of puerperal fever for another two centuries.

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