Oliver Wendell Holmes Delivered An Epic Burn To Science Skeptics

Illustration for article titled Oliver Wendell Holmes Delivered An Epic Burn To Science Skeptics

Ignaz Semmelweis was a European physician who solved one of the most horrifying medical mysteries of his time, and was destroyed for it. One man in the United States agreed with him, proved him right, and delivered a historic burn on the doubters.


Oliver Wendell Holmes wasn't the only one who suspected that doctors were accidentally killing their own patients, but he was the only one who got credit for his suspicions during his lifetime. This may be because he was given a long lifetime. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician, wrote about the many women who died of puerperal fever shortly after giving birth. He believed that doctors went through "epidemics" of this fever because they themselves were transmitting it between patients. Ignaz was widely ridiculed, dismissed from his job, and eventually died alone in an asylum at the early age of 47.

Illustration for article titled Oliver Wendell Holmes Delivered An Epic Burn To Science Skeptics

Oliver Wendell Holmes lived to be 85 – old enough to see the medical establish grow to accept his conclusions and the advent of germ theory confirm them. In the early 1800s, when Holmes first started practicing, puerperal fever was attributed to any number of things, including miasmas and humors. Laboring women would get through the birth and seem fine. A few days later their temperature would begin to climb. Once the infection took hold, few women escaped with their lives. Certain institutions went through waves of cases, when maternal mortality rates climbed as high as 40%. A particular case caught Holmes' attention — a physician doing an autopsy on a woman who had died from "childbed fever" nicked his finger. Within the week, he had died of a mysterious infection.

Holmes traced the woman's obstetrician and found that most of the women he attended that month had died from the same fever. Holmes came to the conclusion that the obstetrician himself had been transmitting the thing, and Holmes published his findings. While few came around to his way of thinking, he was not ridiculed the way Semmelweis was. Although attitudes changed slowly, they changed steadily. Holmes republished his paper 12 years later, along with a list of ideas as to how to contain the fever. Perhaps a physician should not do an autopsy shortly before he attends a birth, or, if he finds that one woman in his care dies of the infection, he should stop delivering babies for a few weeks. And he added this conclusion:

Let the men who mould opinions look to it; if there is any voluntary blindness, any interested oversight, any culpable negligence, even in such a matter, and the facts shall reach the public ear; the pestilence carrier of the lying‐in chamber must look to God for pardon, for man will never forgive him.

Damn. It's not worth all those deaths, but that's a hell of a conclusion.

[Via Preventing the Transmission of Peurperal Fever, Oliver Wendell Holmes and His Essay on Peurperal Fever]


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Wow so the doctors just accepted childbed fever as a fact of childbirth and didn't try to do anything to prevent it to see if that would help?

I've said it before and I will say it again, the past was a terrible place to live

Hopefully the future will be a better one.