There's an excellent review
in the Sunday N.Y. Times
of Sherwin Nuland's "The Doctors' Plague," a history of Ignac Semmelweis' attempt to nail down the etiology of childbed fever. If Semmelweis isn't exactly a household name, it may have to do with the fact that Pasteur, Lister, and Koch would need another 10 years after Semmelweis' research to develop a unified germ theory of disease. Also: Semmelweis' genious as an epidemiologist seems to have been matched by his dismal indifference to bench science --
Semmelweis was a lopsided genius. His singular talent lay in sorting through reams of data and finding subtle patterns squirming beneath -- all the while ignoring the essence of the infection lying within his fingers' reach. In Semmelweis, an insightful epidemiologist seemed to have collided with a blind pathologist. And unfortunately, the more he struggled to make the two prongs of his scientific inquiry meet, the more desperate and unreasonable he seemed to become. His book on childbed fever, written at the end of his life, reads more like a manic manifesto than a treatise. Scientific history never seems to have forgiven him for it.
But what continues to fascinate is Semmelweis' insight -- perhaps a commonplace in this century, but heretical int he 19th -- that puerperile fever was the result of an infection that was passed on from doctor to patient because of a lack of basic sanitation as physicians moved from patient to patient. The review (by Siddartha Mukherjee) concludes:
To the post-Thalidomide generation of doctors -- to doctors inured to the fact that a medicine or procedure can itself be toxic -- Semmelweis's discovery may come as no surprise. But, as Nuland reveals in some of his most reflective paragraphs, for the high-minded physicians of Vienna and Budapest this was a deeply unsettling premise, for it struck directly at the self-image of their profession. Doctoring was supposed to be a do-good business. It wasn't supposed to make young mothers die of preventable illnesses. What Semmelweis had managed to expose was a hidden anxiety within medicine itself, doctors' ''horror at the possibility that they had been killing their patients for years.''
It is this anxiety that still haunts us. In 2003, 150 years after Semmelweis, some of the most disturbing pieces of medical news involved iatrogenic complications -- doctors' plagues, if you will. The first -- SARS -- was an infection that was spread through hospital wards, often carried by doctors, much like the infections that had vexed Semmelweis in the 1850's. The second -- the so-called million-women study, which revealed the toxic side effects of hormone replacement therapy -- marked a moment of deep introspection in women's health, making doctors question their cavalier willingness to push theories and medicines on patients long before the evidence on them had accumulated.
Like Semmelweis himself, Nuland's book is short, intense and single-minded, and these larger themes and implications are left teeming underneath the text, for readers to peer in closely and uncover. ''To receive his due of honor,'' Nuland writes, Semmelweis ''had to be rediscovered.'' ''The Doctors' Plague'' succeeds for exactly that reason: in telling the story of childbed fever, Nuland has managed to rediscover a critical moment in the history of medicine, the anxieties of which, although somewhat attenuated, persist today.