July 6 – Oh Baby, Baby!

Today’s factismal: In 1847, a woman was ten times more likely to die of puperal fever if she gave birth in a hospital.

One of the great paradoxes of the 1800s was the deadliness of doctors. Though they were dedicated to healing the sick and helping the ill, there were some circumstances where they seemed to do more harm than good. One of the most notorious of these was childbirth. If a woman gave birth at a hospital, then there was as much as a 30% chance that she’d die of puperal fever; also known as “childbed fever”, it was an infection that typically led to a deadly buildup of toxins in the blood. But if a woman gave birth at home, then there was only about a 3% chance of puperal fever.

When ten times more patients die in the hospital than at home, you’d think that the doctors would sit up and take notice. And they did. Doctors dismissed the idea that they could be the cause (in the words of one expert, “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean”) and instead suggested that the problem was the proximity to other patients or the lack of fresh air or poor nutrition on the part of the women. It wasn’t until Ignaz Semmelweis compared the mortality rate for hospital wards with midwives to that for wards where doctors delivered babies that the doctors were pinpointed as the cause. Because germs hadn’t been discovered yet, all Semmelweis could do is suggest that “cadaverous particles” were being carried by doctors as they went from autopsies to birthing rooms (yes, things were a lot looser back then).

To prove his hypothesis, Semmelweis started requiring that doctors wash their hands in a chlorinated lime solution (roughly equivalent to a weak bleach) before attending a pregnant woman. Overnight, the incident rates for puperal fever dropped to the same levels seen when women gave birth at home. And for ten years, Semmelweis tried to convince other doctors to follow his lead.

Needless to say, the medical establishment didn’t appreciate the news that they were the cause. The local doctors arranged to have Semmelweis fired and convinced his wife to have him committed to an insane asylum. In an ironic twist of fate, he died of sepsis just two weeks after being admitted, probably due to a beating that the guards had given him. But within two decades Semmelweis would be vindicated. Pasteur would conclusively demonstrate that most diseases are caused by germs; much of his early work focused on puperal fever and relied on Semmelweis’ insights.

Of course, doctors are still trying to learn more about diseases today. And they have learned from past experience and have somewhat more open minds than they did in the 1850s. What that means is that they are now asking for insights from people like you. At the Health Tracking Network, they’d like you to tell them about any symptoms you have (or don’t) relating to colds, the flu, or the stomach flu. Even better, you’ll earn money for charity by participating, which makes this a win-win-win. To participate, head over to

One thought on “July 6 – Oh Baby, Baby!

  1. Pingback: September 9 – Rock A Bye Baby | Little facts about science

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