Next to vaccination for small-pox, probably the most important advance in nineteenth century medicine was the discovery of the cause of puerperal fever, and the consequent diminution of the death-rate from that very fatal disease. At one time in the nineteenth century, it was much more dangerous for a woman to have a child in a lying-in hospital in Europe than to go through an attack of typhoid fever. The death-rate was at least 10 per cent. When it was reduced to five per cent, the hospital authorities felt quite self-complacent about it. Shortly after the beginning of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, there began to come glimmerings of the real cause of the affection. It was not due to something from within the patient, but was caused by a materies morbi introduced from without. Usually the physician in attendance was responsible for the introduction of it. He came to these patients after contact with septic cases of various kinds improperly cleansed. The consequence was that he infected them, and puerperal fever was contracted.

It would seem as though the medical profession would be very ready and willing to test any such simple explanation of the origin of a serious disease, and if possible secure its diminution. On the contrary, the old men proved to be so wedded to the notion that the physician could not possibly be the cause of this serious condition, that they were very bitter in their denunciation of those who tried to introduce the new idea. One distinguished old professor of midwifery declared very superciliously that, of course, it was a very charming thing for a young poet to insist on the notion that these serious diseases were not associated necessarily with the beautiful function of maternity itself, but were extraneous factors quite apart from it; but there was no doubt, he declared, that the affection came from within, all the same, and that the youthful poet’s idea was only a pleasant fiction. The poet in the case was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and, needless to say now, though he was laboring under the heinous crime of being a young man, and did indulge in occasional poetry, he was entirely in the right, and the distinguished old professor entirely in the wrong. No little denunciation was heaped upon the devoted head of Holmes, however, for his strenuous humanitarian work with regard to this subject. It cost Holmes some of his medical friends and not a little practice for some time. Even in America, then the land of the free, there was a strong conservatism that made the introduction of new ideas a very difficult and almost a dangerous thing.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)


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