Friday, June 14, 2013

Why Semmelweis Didn’t Make It Big

My earliest introduction to medical discovery—indeed to science—came when I learned the story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) from my mother. Semmelweis is remembered, no doubt only by a few, for discovering a method for drastically reducing puerperal (or childbed) fever; it killed anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of women giving birth in hospitals during the nineteenth century. Semmelweis discovered that puerperal fever was contagious. Therefore he insisted that caregivers wash their hands with chlorinated water after touching a woman—before touching another. This came in 1847 at the Vienna General Hospital. The incidence of fever dropped, in consequence, from 10 to 1-2 percent. His discoveries were ignored and, in a sense, drove him mad. The germ-theory of disease had not been discovered yet. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) made the discovery in the later 1860s.

What with patenting genes in the news, I also know why Semmelweis died early in an insane asylum. Washing hands couldn’t be patented either—and the Market, therefore, could not use its hidden, and largely unwashed, hand to solve the childbed fever problem sooner, making someone very rich in the process. 

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