The One with Germs
Welcome to the new section of Scimplifide called Days of Our Labs where we look at the history and drama of scientific discovery! Here we go!
Vienna, 1847. Beethoven is killing the music scene, the population is booming, and the telegraph was just invented in the brand new country of the United States of America.
You are nine months pregnant and it’s your first go round at this whole parenting thing. You are trying out the new Viennese dessert, the sachertorte, when you feel a little pain, but surely that’s nothing. You sit for a few more minutes, take a sip of your coffee, and ouch. That pain again. Your husband pays the check and you head for the hospital.
You get to your obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis, and he assures you in his Hungarian accent that everything is just fine. Fast forward to several hours later and you are in the thick of labor, sweating, panting, and ready to have this baby out of you. Ignaz walks in with his posse from finishing up an autopsy on a woman who died after delivering her baby from childbed fever. You obviously have heard of this disease and have been praying that you aren’t an unlucky woman who contracts it. Hands still bloody, he wipes up with a towel and, right before getting to work, he and his medical students splash their hands with this weird pungent smelling lime scented liquid. The smell fills the room and seeing that your patience is in quite short supply, you question why this horrendous smell has to be in the delivery room.
They all look around sheepishly, but Ignaz nervously clears his throat and states that he believes that small microscopic organisms are responsible for carrying disease from one person to another. You take a second to ponder the idea but can’t quite ruminate on it. After all, you’re having a baby!
Pushes, tears of joy, and there she is.
After holding your sweet little Eliza for the first time, Ignaz comes in to check on you. That smell again fills the room and you ask again about his outlandish theory. He tells you that a few months prior, he realized that the midwives had a lower mortality rate from childbed fever and didn't understand why. He ran an experiment and found that if doctors used chlorinated lime water after coming in contact with someone who was sick, subsequent patients would have a lower risk of contracting childbed fever and other ailments. He even reduced the rate of contracting childbed fever to below that of the midwives. You inquire as to how his other colleagues feel about his idea, and he just laughs and says that they don’t take him seriously, but is quite confident. You agree with his colleagues, but don’t mention it to him.
Twenty years pass and your sweet little Eliza is pregnant her first child. It’s 1867 and Eliza doesn’t have to worry about childbed fever quite as much as you did. Thanks to Joseph Lister, a British surgeon who followed in Ignaz Semmelweis’ footsteps, there was now a way to prevent infection by sanitizing wounds, hand washing, and instrument cleaning. This germ theory that seemed absurd to you twenty years ago doesn’t seem so crazy after all.
Like sand through a No. 4 sieve, so are the days of our labs.