Degree Granting Department
Golfo Alexopoulos, Ph.D.
Giovanna Benadusi, Ph.D.
David Johnson, Ph.D.
childbed fever, Semmelweis, history of medicine, history of science, intellectual history
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.
Scholar Commons Citation
Wells, Jessica, "Puerperal Fever in Britain: Failed Models of Disease Causation" (2010). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.