Ignaz Semmelweis and His Cadaverous Particles

On this day, 202 years ago (July 1, 1818). Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Budapest, Hungary. Because he was born, billions of us are alive to celebrate that fact. That makes it all the more astounding to me that maybe only one in 10,000 of us even know that he ever existed.

Semmelweis became a doctor in 1844, and specialized in obstetrics in Vienna. As the chief resident at the Vienna General Hospital, he began to notice something very strange and disturbing. There were two maternity clinics at the hospital, and women were dying 2 ½ times more often at one clinic than at the other.

These deaths were attributed to puerperal fever, or childbed fever, which had been around since the 1600’s. (It’s a horrible way to go, involving a great deal of pus. I’ll leave it at that.)

Women were more likely to survive if they gave birth in the street than if they went into the hospital. That reputation was not lost on the public, and women used to beg, on their knees, to be admitted to clinic 2, if they had to be admitted anywhere at all.

Why was this happening? No one knew. And that bothered Semmelweis more than a little.

He began comparing the two clinics, trying to determine the difference between them. The first, more deadly, clinic was staffed by medical students. The second was staffed by students of midwifery.

The second clinic was the more crowded of the two, so these deaths couldn’t be due to crowding. And the discrepancy had nothing to do with climate, because that was the same on both wards. For a time, he was even desperate enough to try to blame it on religious differences, but he got nowhere with that theory.

Then one day in 1847, Semmelweis’ good friend and colleague, Jakob Kolletschka died, and his autopsy showed that what killed him looked identical to puerperal fever. How was that possible? He had been accidentally cut by a med student’s scalpel during a post mortem exam, and he died not long thereafter. What did that have in common with childbirth?

That made Semmelweis realize another difference between the two clinics. The med students often would perform autopsies in the morning, and then interact with the pregnant women in the afternoon. The midwives, on the other hand, did not do autopsies. Semmelweis began to wonder if puerperal fever was the result of some kind of cadaverous particle that was being transferred from the corpses to the pregnant women via the medical students.

It is important to mention here that germ theory was not accepted in Vienna back then. No one understood the importance of sanitizing the wards or washing one’s hands. Women often lay on soiled bed sheets, and doctors would treat them while still wearing aprons bloodied by autopsies.

Semmelweis instituted a policy of washing one’s hands in chlorinated lime, mainly because he noticed that this removed the autopsy odor. No more putrid smell of infection. Perhaps this would remove the cadaverous particles, too.

Lo and behold, the mortality rate dropped by 90%, just like that. He set out to tell the medical world about this. You’d think a drastic reduction in deaths would have everyone jumping on the bandwagon right away, wouldn’t you?

But no. His theory was considered radical. How could a particle from a corpse turn you into a corpse? And it was an insult to doctors everywhere, who did not want to think of themselves as dirty.

Semmelweis’ breakthrough was ignored, rejected, or ridiculed by the medical community at large. During all this, and amidst a heaping helping of political turmoil, he was dismissed from his job and finally was so harassed that he moved back to Budapest.

He continued to achieve positive results everywhere he worked, and yet he was not taken seriously. This, understandably, did not sit well with Semmelweis. He began to fight back, by writing openly hostile letters to obstetricians, calling them irresponsible murderers. He fell into a depression and started drinking.

People began to think he was going nuts, and perhaps he was. In 1865 he was committed to a lunatic asylum after trying to convince people of his breakthrough, to no avail, for 20 years. How heavily it must have weighed on him, watching women die for entirely preventable reasons that whole time.

One of his friends lured him to the asylum under false pretexts. When he realized this, he tried to leave. He was severely beaten by the guards and thrown into a straitjacket. Two weeks later, he died of septic shock, most likely from the wounds he obtained during that beating. What a bitter irony. He was 47 years old.

It’s hard to believe that people were willing to overlook the fact that, after he left each one of his clinics, mortality rates skyrocketed again. A few decades later, Louis Pasteur further developed the germ theory of disease, finally explaining the actual science behind it, and people began to realize that perhaps Semmelweis had a point.

The home where Semmelweis was born in Budapest has now been converted into a museum and library to honor him. A university was named after him in the same city, as was a clinic in Vienna and a hospital in Hungary. His face is on an Austrian commemorative coin. A minor planet was named after him. He has his own Hungarian postage stamp. He has even become a Google Doodle.

Per Wikipedia, there’s a name for “a certain type of human behavior characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beleifs, or paradigms.” It’s called the Semmelweis Reflex. How’s that for a legacy?

Anyway, I was thinking of this tragic man as I washed my hands for the umpteenth time today. How proud he would be of all of us who are continuing to battle against our current pandemic. How surprised he would be that so many people are turning those efforts political and resisting these efforts to save lives.

Next time you wash your hands, say, “Thank you, Ignaz Semmelweis!” He struggled his whole adult life to get us to see the importance of these things. Please don’t let his efforts be in vain.

Semmelweis_statue

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Wildly Inappropriate

Once, I met an employee who worked in another department, and learned she had just had a baby. I congratulated her, as one does. I barely knew her, and doubted I’d have the opportunity to know her better. We traveled in very different circles. This was a random encounter, and I sort of figured that was that.

Later that day, I received an e-mail from her entitled “baby pictures”. I thought that was sweet, that she wanted to show me her baby. So I clicked on the e-mail.

And I let out this shriek that I’m sure made all my coworkers jump out of their skins.

Because what she sent me was pictures of her in the process of giving birth. And by that I mean close ups of all her most hairy private places, with a gooey, bloody baby’s head trying to burst therefrom. It was like a scene from Alien. That image is imprinted on my brain, despite all efforts on my part to exorcise it. Why? Just… why?

Believe me when I tell you that this is a vision that I would never voluntarily see. At the very least it should have come with a warning label. I am not interested in gazing at the nexus of any mammal, clothed or unclothed if I’m honest, and certainly not when it’s in the midst of doing… that. And most especially when it’s someone I’ve only just met.

I mean, seriously, who sends pictures like that? Who takes pictures like that? “Yes, dear, that’s your mother, in the most pain she’s ever been in in her entire life, and look! There’s your mushy little head!”

Every once in a while, someone will do something that’s so wildly inappropriate that I’m rendered speechless. Do they just not care at all about societal norms, or do they enjoy the shock value? Are they completely detached from reality, or are they testing the waters to see what they can get away with? Who knows.

And no, I can’t remember what I said to that woman. I can’t even remember what most of her looks like. Sorry. I just had to vent.

Shocked.

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Uterine History

Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of historical information is dedicated to the exploits of men? Wars. Regimes. Exploration. The fact is that we often don’t have a clue what was going on in a day-to-day, routine sort of way in most periods in history. Especially in the lower classes. I call this Uterine History, and it’s shamefully overlooked.

How on earth did women with toddlers manage to keep them from burning themselves on the wood stoves they labored over for much of the day? (Well, yeah, many of them didn’t, which is why so many children didn’t survive to adulthood, but how did ANY of them succeed?)

How did you manage to find the time and supplies to sew clothes when out on the prairie, days away from civilization? If you dropped a needle through a crack in the floorboard, your family would be wearing rags. How did you feed your family when the men were off to war? In times of drought, what did you do when your children cried out for water? What did they do for toilet paper in the year 1000? How did you cope with menstruation while toiling in the fields? How did you handle childbirth when you were never even taught the birds and the bees?

It’s the daily grind of life that is often passed over in the history books, because, frankly, people engaged in that grind didn’t have time to write about it. You don’t even see cave paintings depicting people doing laundry or cooking or fetching water or changing whatever passed for diapers.

I used to think history equaled what happened in the past, but really it equals what people felt was worthy of mention, completely ignoring the fact that if someone didn’t take the time to cook, no one ate.

indian mother

Inuit Woman With Child. 1900. Alaska.

[Image credit: facebook.com/mosesonthemesa]

A Work in Progress

Whether it’s childbirth, terrible twos, adolescence and puberty, going off to college, marriage, midlife crisis, divorce, job change, relocation, illness, death or some twisted combination of any of the above, transitions are going to happen in your life, and they’re usually stressful. In actual fact, midway through a transition, life generally sucks. I know because I’m right there in the thick of it even as we speak.

The scariest part of a transition is that moment when you have multiple options. If you’re like me, you’ll agonize and second-guess yourself within an inch of your life before finally settling in and adapting to your new circumstances.

We are all works in progress. When I was young I thought there would be this point, some magical moment in the future, when I’d be “done”, and all my problems would be solved, sort of like an existential graduation. With maturity I realize that life tends to be cyclical, and these transitions will come and go. Somehow, though, rather than depressing me, I actually find comfort in this insight. The more rough patches I survive, the more I learn that they’re survivable, and that gives me confidence.

So pardon my dust. I’m under renovation. It’s only temporary. I’m looking forward to being new and improved. I just wish, for the love of GOD, that this current project would hurry up and reach completion.

Life underconstruction.

The Destruction of Women

Today I came across this picture on Facebook.

 deform

A friend of mine rightly commented, “And this was before Photoshop.” Women used to aspire to have wasp waists. To heck with breathing, we wanted to be desirable! These contraptions caused deformities in ribs and internal organs, weak muscles, and respiratory problems. It also increased the rate of miscarriages and death in childbirth. How many women had to faint before this became less fashionable?

This got me thinking of other ways we women have allowed ourselves to be altered, to our detriment, all in the name of “beauty” or cultural norms. Foot binding springs to mind.

Foot Binding

We’d like to think this particular form of mutilation was isolated, but it’s estimated that one billion Chinese women were put through this over a period of 1000 years. Yes, you read that correctly. People thought this was a good idea for 1000 years. One’s toes were bent into the soles of the feet until they broke, and then the arch was broken. Needless to say, this caused infections, especially if the nails weren’t clipped short enough and they grew into the soles. The solution for that would be to remove the toenails altogether. Sometimes the toes would drop off completely, but that, apparently, was seen as a good thing because then you could bind the feet even more tightly. And then you had the continual breaking of other bones because it’s impossible to balance on bound feet, and falls were quite common. Does reading this make you uncomfortable? Well, it sure beats the lifetime of agonizing pain that these women suffered.

The two horrendous body mutilations mentioned above are, fortunately, a thing of the past. I wish I could say that this was the end of this blog entry, and there is nothing new to report. But no.

In some Asian and African cultures, women wear neck rings to make their necks seem longer. Actually, their necks aren’t elongated. What a relief, right? No, what happens is their shoulder blades become deformed, giving the illusion of a long neck. Their collar bones and rib cages also get pushed down. This is done so they will appear more attractive.

neck-rings-1

Even more horrific, in my opinion, is female genital mutilation, which, according to the world health organization, is still practiced in 28 countries throughout the world.

281851582_221142755001_100723FGM-3622281

About 120 million women have been subjected to this abuse. I won’t fully describe the procedure in all its grizzly variations. You can look it up yourself if you want to lose your appetite, but I will say that it is known to cause fatal hemorrhaging, cysts, recurring infections, a lifetime of pain, incontinence, fistulae, and problems during intercourse and childbirth.

Ah, but we western cultures don’t have to worry about these things, right? We honor our women! We would never cause them harm in the name of beauty, right? We’d never mutilate them, right? Well? Right?

breast-augmentation

Augmented breasts are supposed to make you more attractive and more successful. What they don’t tell you is these implants can make the breasts sore to the touch or numb and can decrease your sexual response. They also make it harder to detect breast cancer. Ruptures of the implants can cause pain and deformity. And your immune system can reject the implant and build a wall around it, causing pain, distortion and rupture.

And then there’s high heels.

high heels fallon 6 inch black patent stilletto

According to an article in the Washington Post, wearing heels places pressure on the inside of the knee, a common location for arthritis in women. It also causes your hips and spine to go out of alignment. It increases pressure on the forefoot, and shortens the length of the calf muscles. It can cause numbness in the toes, bunions, hammer toes, and ankle injuries. But hey! It’s attractive! That’s all that matters!

Since I’ve started viewing heels in this context, I’ve stopped wearing them entirely, and when I see others wearing them, I shudder.

What frustrates me most about all these horrors I’ve mentioned above is that we women are almost always complicit in these acts. If we don’t choose it ourselves, our mothers allow it or encourage it. So why are we so surprised when this happens?

 anorexia-nervosa

Eating disorders are more prevalent in women than men for a reason, and before we get all culturally superior, they are much more prevalent in Western cultures. We are raised to think that it’s important to be beautiful, but sadly we are often not warned that many standards of beauty are sick and twisted.

Eating disorders cause a whole host of side effects, including acne, constipation, osteoporosis, scurvy, diarrhea, electrolyte imbalance, cardiac arrest, kidney failure, tooth loss, brain atrophy, suicide and death.

Ladies, ladies, what are we doing to ourselves? I weep for my gender. And I’m also very, very pissed off.