Just about my favourite writer is the wizened old cynic Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
In his latest and probably his last book he announced he’d given up on mankind. If you want to know why, but can’t be bothered reading Man Without a Country, well then I suppose just look out your window.
On page 89 Kurt starts telling the true story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician. He lived at a time when the scientific community was just getting to grips with the concept of germs.
He noticed that many doctors who spent the morning working in the morgue went on to deliver babies, without washing their hands. The babies weren’t doing very well, in fact they were dropping like flies (unlike the flies, who apparently were all doing very well).
Ignaz dared to suggest to his seniors that they should try washing the ‘germs’ off their hands. He asked and asked, like some cheeky upstart. Eventually the medical staff gave in and tried washing their hands. Lo and behold, the babies stopped dropping dead. He must have saved a lot of lives.
It’s a nice, uplifting tale if you leave it there, but there’s more to the story. When old Ignaz’s theory proved good, he was booted out of the hospital. It seemed the senior staff didn’t like the idea of some low-ranking nobody making them look out of touch with reality. Wouldn’t happen today, eh. Plus ca change, rien ca change…
Well, Surgeons decided that, as the trained elite, they’d take over childbirth duties thankyouverymuch, and all of you local women who act as informal midwives, well, you have no training, and are basically witches. Never mind that you’ve had centuries of folk knowledge passed down from mother to daughter, you don’t have letters or science. Get lost.
So there you are, in hospitals with no hygeine procedures, no asepsis whatsoever. And Joe Surgeon would be taking off some poor bugger’s gangrenous leg one second, and then rushing into the delivery room to use their marvellous, unsterilised forceps on that difficult delivery.
It killed thousands upon thousands of young mothers, that did.