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.

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Despicable Him

I’ve been binge watching Game of Thrones. It’s probably one of the best series I’ve ever seen, right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale, This is Us, Northern Exposure, and Six Feet Under. But at the end of each episode, I’m always left stunned with how despicable some human beings can be.

I try to comfort myself with the fact that this series is a work of fiction. (Obviously. I mean, there are dragons.) People can’t really be that horrible, can they?

But I know better. People can suck. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Whenever I have any doubt about the depths to which people can sink, all I have to do is remember a guy I knew decades ago, whom I’ll call John Smith for the purposes of this post. I never liked him. He gave off this selfish, hostile vibe, and he’d blatantly lie to get whatever it was he happened to want. That was bad enough, but then I learned something really horrible about him.

His wife was pregnant, and one day John Smith drives up to the house with this ratty little trailer that he proceeds to park in the back yard. Naturally, his wife wanted to know what was going on, since she hadn’t been consulted. Boy, did she ever find out.

It turns out that the trailer was there to house John Smith’s girlfriend, who also happened to be pregnant. Of course this came as quite a shock to the wife. I have no idea why she put up with such treatment, but the girlfriend lived there for many months, and then she had the baby before the wife had hers.

When the girlfriend had her baby, it was a boy. And John Smith decided to call the child John Smith Jr. Take that, wife!

A few weeks later, the wife had her baby. It, too, was a boy. Guess what John Smith named the child?

Yup. John Smith Jr.

This, to me, is proof positive that humans can be selfish, cruel, thoughtless, and evil. (I wonder, too, about the passivity of the women in this story, but that’s a perplexing tangent that I don’t have the energy to pursue at the moment, and I have no idea what either one had to do to survive. Putting up with this demon seems like way too high a price to pay, but that’s me.)

I hope neither John Smith Jr. carried on his father’s legacy in any way. They’d be adults now. I hope they realize that their father is a despicable, misogynistic, waste of human flesh. I also hope that they turned into decent, upstanding men in spite of that.

Awful

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A Maternal Instinct for Benign Neglect

I really have to hand it to my mother. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was exposed to the idea that parents were capable of disliking their children. Ma never gave me that impression, so the concept never occurred to me.

When I was in my early 20’s, my mother admitted to me that she had never really wanted kids. She wasn’t saying this to hurt me. The subject came up simply because I had told her that I never intended to have any of my own. (And, in fact, I never did.)

For my mother’s generation, the question was never if you would have children, but when. It was just what a woman was expected to do. And so that’s what she did.

Recently I read an article in the Atlantic from 2012 entitled, “Not Wanting Kids Is Entirely Normal” by Jessica Valenti. It even made this diehard child-free woman blink. (And very few things make me blink.)

It turns out that a lot of mothers, I mean, a LOT, say that if they had it to do over, they wouldn’t have had children. And yet that pervasive idea that we all have this maternal clock that’s tick, tick, ticking away is still expressed throughout the land. Most people seem to think that every woman’s primary desire is to have children.

I, personally, am relieved to be in my 50’s because finally, FINALLY there’s not this overwhelming societal pressure for me to procreate. If I had a dollar for every time someone smiled at me and said, “You’ll change your mind,” regarding motherhood, I’d be a millionaire. The truth is, I’m actually more the rule than the exception. As the article points out, “most women spend the majority of their lives trying not to get pregnant.” It went on to assert that half the pregnancies in the US are unintended, and the mothers of unintended children treat them much differently (as in, worse) than they treat planned children.

I’m quite certain I was not a planned child. My parents were divorced 3 months after I was born, and I never met my father. He also never paid a penny of child support.

Looking back, I’d have to say that my mother’s parenting style was one of benign neglect. Basically, she let me run wild. I never felt disliked. But I did feel as though she didn’t want to be bothered. She seemed to be in a constant state of depression. She set no boundaries for me, and I therefore never felt safe or confident.

She would bury herself in library books and so would I. She didn’t tell me she loved me until I was 12 years old and my older sister forced her to do so. I had food and shelter and clothing and health care and an education, but I also had the sense that if I pissed her off, she’d stop loving me. She looked the other way when I was experiencing abuse. That, too, is abuse. But I didn’t know any better.

My mother did what was expected of her. Society didn’t care if she liked it or not. And that’s where society got it wrong.

I’m grateful for all the sacrifices my mother made so I could go on to live the life I chose to live, the one that she never had a chance to live. But perhaps we should stop telling women that they’ll change their mind. Perhaps we should congratulate those women who know themselves well enough not to make a mistake that could have psychological repercussions for generations to come. Just sayin’.

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10 Quotes That Should Piss Off Any Woman With Sense

What breaks my heart is that this blog entry could practically write itself.

  • “The fact is the Republicans don’t have a war on women, they have a war for women, to empower them to be something other than victims of their gender.” –Republican Mike Huckabee (Gee thanks, Mike. It sure has been no fun being a victim of my gender up to this point.)
  • “If I was a woman over 50, I wouldn’t need gynecological services.” –Republican Allan Rothlisberg (So, Allan, can I assume your prostate disappeared at the same time my vagina did?)
  • “Legitimate rape rarely, if ever, results in pregnancy.” –Republican Todd Akin. (Oh, where to begin.)
  • “You know how to stop abortion? Require that each one occur with a gun.” –Rush Limbaugh (Now let’s figure out how to stop you from talking.)
  • “Do your husbands like you working full time?” — Democrat Joe Biden on a visit to Japan (What is this, 1950?)
  • “The women in my family are doing great. That’s what I see in all the statistics coming out. I have, you know, young women in my office that are the leading intellectual lights of our office. So I don’t really see this, that there’s some sort of war on women that’s, you know, keeping women down.” –Republican Rand Paul (SUCH a relief that your family is a valid statistical sample for the rest of the country, Rand. It makes life so much easier.)
  • “Planned Parenthood has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was.” — Failed Virginia Republican candidate for lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson (Really?)
  • “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president. It’s kind of a pipe dream, it’s a personal fantasy of mine, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. And it is a good way of making the point that women are voting so stupidly, at least single women. It also makes the point, it is kind of embarrassing, the Democratic Party ought to be hanging its head in shame, that it has so much difficulty getting men to vote for it. I mean, you do see it’s the party of women and ‘We’ll pay for health care and tuition and day care — and here, what else can we give you, soccer moms?’” – Ann Coulter (There’s nothing more idiotic than a women-hating woman.)
  • Liberal women “have been neutering American men and bringing us to the point of this incredible weakness — to let them know that we are not going to have our men become subservient. That’s what we need you to do. Because if you don’t, then the debt will continue to grow…deficits will continue to grow.” –Republican Allen West. (Sounds like time to invest in cast iron cod pieces. Do it for the economy.)
  • Birth control is “not okay.” “It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” –Republican Rick Santorum (Sounds like you really have your finger on the pulse of how things are supposed to be, Rick.)

This is 2014, isn’t it? Keep reminding me. It’s easy to forget.

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Albino Skunks and Other Distractions

The other night I was driving home from work at midnight on a very remote stretch of road. I came around the curve and saw a car stopped in the oncoming lane. My first thought was, “Oh great, now what? How altruistic am I willing to be, a woman alone at midnight in the middle of nowhere?” But then I got closer and realized why they were stopped.

There was an albino skunk standing in the middle of the road. It was one of those moments when your first instinct is to rub your eyes and look again, as if some sort of adjustment in focus is required. But there he was, on the center line, looking kind of dazed and confused. Needless to say I wasn’t going to usher the poor thing off the highway, not with those scent glands. So I just slowed down as I passed by. Surreal.

When I got home I Googled it and discovered that albino skunks only occur once in every 20,000 births. But skunks apparently also come in brown, grey, and white with a black stripe instead of the other way around. Go figure.

It’s not the first time I’ve been driving along minding my own business and have encountered total weirdness. One time it was a herd of llamas on the side of the road just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Another time the tire came off the pickup truck ahead of me, axle and all, and rolled about 100 yards before veering off into the ditch. Needless to say the truck didn’t quite make it that far.

I once had to call the cops in Las Vegas when I witnessed a fist fight. It was occurring in a car between the driver and his passenger. They were whaling on each other, I mean fists were flying, people, and yet the driver was still driving.

I almost went over a cliff when I came upon a herd of wild horses in Mesa Verde National Park, and in Yellowstone a buffalo walked up beside my van and glared at me. He was bigger than the van. It was enough to make me find religion.

On my way to the bank on my lunch hour I once saw a prostitute in her third trimester of pregnancy, wearing a purple satin spandex unitard.

You know, in retrospect it’s kind of amazing I don’t get into more traffic accidents.

skunk