Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's the Stupid Title

I could barely read this article, linked to from Jezebel, because of it's title: When Childbirth was Natural, and Deadly. The article is about childbed fever. Why did so many women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries die of childbed fever? If they went to the hospital to give birth, they died of childbed fever because doctors who attended those births went from dissecting cadavers to catching babies without washing their hands. Not only that, those same doctors were offended by the very idea that their precious hands that had so recently been plunged into a dead body could possibly infect a woman and lead to her death. In one of the most egregious and deadly examples of intellectual and moral defensiveness imaginable, leading doctors rejected outright the notion that handwashing before a birth could matter. (The truth is so awful, to have unnecessarily caused so many deaths, that I can almost understand their defensiveness. In fact, one or two of those who recognized their error actually committed suicide). You can read all about it in the excellent book by Sherwin Nuland, The Doctor's Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. Childbirth is scary enough, but doctors and scientists should recognize that not all of the threats it generates come from the laboring woman. No, medical science (which, full disclaimer, I'm pretty much for) yet provides plenty.

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