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The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis

(Great Discoveries)

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  522 ratings  ·  57 reviews
Surgeon, scholar, best-selling author, Sherwin B. Nuland tells the strange story of Ignác Semmelweis with urgency and the insight gained from his own studies and clinical experience. Ignác Semmelweis is remembered for the now-commonplace notion that doctors must wash their hands before examining patients. In mid-nineteenth-century Vienna, however, this was a subversive ...more
Paperback, 208 pages
Published November 17th 2004 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 2003)
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Jennifer (JC-S)
Sep 09, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: librarybooks
Will the real Dr Semmelweis please stand up?

I first became aware of Dr Ignac Semmelweis through reading ‘The Cry and the Covenant’ back in the early 1970s. Microbiology, theories of germ transfer and other sciences of medicine became more familiar to me later, but I’d not critically revisited the role of Dr Semmelweis until recently.

Dr Nuland’s book is valuable on two fronts.
Firstly, it provides background and insight into Dr Semmelweis himself which goes some way to explaining why his theory
John Deaton
Jun 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A doctor, reading about a doctor in a book written by a doctor, would seem to be doctorly, at the very least. But Dr. Semmelweis lived in the nineteenth century, Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland is a surgeon and an academic physician I have admired from afar, and this reviewer turned to a book published seven years ago because of how timely it was for his own medical book, curently being written--hint, hint to all editors and agents--by way of measuring how a doctor writes about a doctor, or, in my case, ...more
Apr 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 25, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Childbed fever killed women in enormous numbers before the significance of bacteria in the travel of illness was discovered. This book discusses the work of one physician to solve the mystery of puerperal fever, and why it was that hundreds of women would die if they went into one ward of a specific hospital, but only a few would die in the other ward.

Sometimes the language used is a bit too clinical for the average reader, but the puzzle being assembled is a fascinating one. How Dr. Semmelweis
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Appreciated this exploration of the professional life and times of Ignac Semmelweis. It reassured me to learn that other physicians were in agreement with his thesis that childbed fever was spread from cadavers of infected women to new mothers and their infants. This was before the development of germ theory and the microscope which could have provided strong evidence and credibility. He had the support of some of his colleagues in Vienna where he worked & studied but he neglected to take ...more
Feb 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. It was very short, but it told a vital story about a man who tried all his life to warn doctors in Austria that their movement from the morgue to delivering babies in the delivery rooms without cleaning their hands was killing women. All he wanted the doctors to do was wash their hands with soap and water. He demonstrated again and again that it worked, and in places where it was put into place deaths went down significantly. But administrators called him nuts, and worked ...more
Dec 14, 2010 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: people interested in germ theory or medical history
This book was a really good history of a forgotten problem. Before we understood germ theory there were so many situations where doctors just couldn't figure out why people were dying seemingly without a direct cause. This is the story of one of those situations, with a tragically high death toll, and one doctor who did figure it out, though he stopped just short of discovering all of germ theory.

It's a very interesting subject, unfortunately written more in the style of a university paper than
May 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
I found this book very absorbing. I really enjoyed learning more about the history of the germ theory of disease, and specifically about Semmelweis, who was quite the character. Fascinating. Made me VERY glad to be living in the era of modern medicine.
Dec 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Probably one of the best science books I've ever read. Not dumbed down but completely accessible to the layman. The science is explained well without being dry. The medical mystery is intriguing. All around a fascinating story.
Jun 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Ignac Semmelweis, an obstetrician from Hungary working at Vienna’s Allgemeine Krankenhaus, successfully implemented hand washing and other sanitary procedures, cutting the cases of puerperal fever to less than one percent. His doctrine or Lehre was proven to work, but Semmelweis’ refusal to publish his finding and his lack of experimental data caused others to misunderstand the Lehre. When Semmelweis finally did publish, bitterness and a lack of writing skill obscured his finding. It would take ...more
If you're even remotely squeamish, you probably shouldn't read this book. It's about childbed fever, so there are women dying in agony left right and centre, and then their bodies are autopsied and found to be full of stinky pus. It's pretty graphic and pretty gross a lot of the time. And definitely don't read it if you're pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant in the near future.

But it's fascinating to see how something that seems so completely obvious - "Hey, maybe don't touch the insides
Sandy D.
This was a short but gripping book - meticulously researched - describing the life of the Hungarian doctor who discovered that doctors, students, and midwives who washed their hands in a disinfectant wash had much, much lower rates of "childbed" or puerperial fever among their patients. (1 in 100 instead of 1 in 6!)

Nuland combines a strong understanding of the history of medicine and academia, how doctors interact professionally, and more than a bit of detective work. Several passages are
Rhonda Sue
Sep 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
I have been obsessed with Ignac or Ignatz Semmelweis since I first learned of him in my medical readings. I was happy to find this book, one of the only ones out there on this pioneer who is all but left off the list of celebrated medical geniuses. This book provides excellent history on germs and disease, with a specific focus on healthy women who died in childbirth in Vienna's public hospital in the 1800s. It's amazing to see how arrogant and dismissive doctors of that day were regarding ...more
Chris Demer
Sep 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was a wonderful little book! Sherwin Nuland is a great writer and really makes medical subjects come alive for the average reader.
This one is about Ignace Semmelweis, who through careful observation alone was able to determine the cause of "childbed fever" or puerperal sepsis, which well into the 1800s was killing off a substantial number of women who gave birth in hospitals. He developed a commonsense solution (doctors should wash their hands thoroughly before examining women in labor)
Feb 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
This book starts out with a story that made my skin crawl. Daniel suggested that perhaps I shouldn't read it before bed since he could tell I was upset by it. Something about me spouting off about doctors and raging against ignorance must have clued him in. It was too gripping to put down, so I read on, and kept my mumblings down so as not to wake him again.

The rest of the book outlines the history behind finding the pathology of puerperal fever and how the doctors of the era reacted to it.
Jan 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Sherwin Nulan's books on the history of medicine are always clearly written and fascinating. The Doctors' Plague traces the history of medical understanding (and misunderstanding) of childbed fever, which could reach epidemic proportions in hospitals. The book is also a tale of heroism, self-destruction, and tragedy, most particularly for the thousands of women who died needlessly because of the resistance of the medical establishment to evidence that failure to sterilize the hands and bedlinen ...more
Sep 09, 2008 rated it it was ok
A book about a doctor written by a It's a little dry, plenty terrifying and tells the often frustrating story of Dr. Semmelweis and his quest to find the cause and prevent childbed fever in the mid-19th century. As a woman expecting my first little one and having no idea what constitutes labor and delivery aside from what I see on television, this was eye-opening. I knew from my studies of European history that childbed fever was a leading cause of death among women of childbearing ...more
May 26, 2017 rated it liked it
A great tale about the doctor that discovered modern hand washing. I always reference his story in conversation about the changing aspect of medicine and how unrelenting our views of medicine can be since were taking care of people. We don't want to be proven wrong when people's lives are on the lines and this can have disastrous effects.

One could argue if we choose not to adopt a new technology it can cause more harm to people than good, especially in the case of Semmelweis who went insane
Jun 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: physics-science
This is a curious little book. It exasperated and enlightened me all at the same time. For what I took as a biography on a little known, pre-germ theory physician, which it most decidedly is, however, we do not get to read about Ignác Semmelweis until page 72 out of around 200 pages.
Obviously, such a slim volume denotes a less comprehensive book, but Nuland manages to pack a lot of historical background on the subject of puerperal sepsis, as well as much of the medical environment of the time.

Sep 04, 2007 rated it liked it
A good quick read about a slice of the history involving "childbed fever" that ravaged childbearing women as hospitals took over childbirth in Europe. The author has an interesting take on Dr. Semmelweis, since in most other historical literature he is heralded as the innovative genius that the big bad "system" was too crotchety to listen to and change. However Dr. Nuland tells a different story of a wild man too stubborn and arrogant to present his argument in a coherent fashion, and too ...more
Jan 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, medicine
I absolutely loved this book. I didn't know anything about Semmelweis, or the history involved. I found it interesting most of all because it was told from an establishment viewpoint, and yet my sympathy, all the way, was with Semmelweis. The author commented that he became obsessive and controlling, watching to make sure doctors and midwives washed their hands. I thought I would definitely have done the same if I'd had the evidence that he had! It was like saying someone was fanatical and ...more
Emma Caylor
Jun 16, 2018 rated it liked it
I first encountered Ignaz Semmelweis, puerperal fever, and the First Clinic in an introductory course in college. I feel that this book would have been the perfect accompaniment to this course, as it was both approachable and informative. I only gave this book three stars as I found the writing style to be a little too colloquial at times, whereas I would have preferred a more standard academic writing style with more source references and further readings. However, if at all interested in the ...more
Sandra Strange
History is inhabited by all sorts of interesting people. Semmelweis, the doctor this book features, is one of the most interesting. The book narrates the problem of childbed fever, the infection that unknowing doctors transferred from one new mother to another when hospitals became the place for the poor to deliver their children. The book narrates how Semmelweis deduced that the fever was an infection caused by the doctors' contact between the dying/dead and the delivering mother--and the ...more
For me this was a must read book for an English class and not one I would have chosen on my own; however, I do find the story of Ignac Semmelweis an interesting one, as well as Childbed Fever. Makes me curios what doctors could be so easily overlooking and pushing to the side with the thinking of no known reason. 3 stars because I just did not like the writing style of Nuland often times I would read a sentence and be thinking: what? I felt he went back and forth with thoughts often. Ignac had ...more
Mar 31, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a relatively quick read. Aimed at a lay audience, this book keeps close to the historical narrative without getting bogged down in medical terminology. That being said, this is also not a book for people with weak stomachs -- the descriptions of obstetric practices and treatments at the time are graphic and unflinching.

All in all, this is a good book for people interested in the history of medicine, including obstetrics and infectious disease.
Aug 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
Terrific read about a doctor named Ignac Semmelweiss who figures out how "childbed fever," which used to kill hordes of women and infants, could essentially be eradicated: through hand washing. Turns out doctors would go from studying corpses directly to delivering babies. Bad call. His genius discovery in 1847 wasn't thoroughly recognized, and he was often villified. Lively and effective writing by the guy who teaches bioethics at Yale Med School.
Mar 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I REALLY enjoyed this book! It actually resonated so closely with me that I really don't know how to express it. The history of childbed fever is every bit as interesting as so many other tales of disease prior to the medical revolution. The story of Ignac Semmelweis personally is just as interesting. The way he died is just terrible and I really felt for how he must have been tortured by the lackluster responses to his passion.
Nathan Douthit
Apr 16, 2016 rated it liked it
I picked this book up for free off of a community shelf when strapped for reading materials. I actually really enjoyed it. This has always been a story of interest to me, and the author takes what has been only mentioned in passing in class and unfolds it in a very readable fashion. My high rating may be the result of low expectations and I do think the author is a little overly technical medically, but it was still a fun and very interesting historical read.
Natalie Pyles
Feb 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
The book is written by a surgeon about the childbed fever epidemic of the of the 1600-1800s. Experience what it would have been like in a maternity ward back before they knew about germs, and then put the book down and stop for a moment to give thanks that you were born in the 20th century. Follow Dr. Ignac Semmelweis as he tries to spread the word about his "preposterous" theory on germs, but is not well-received. It's not witty; it's just straight and interesting.
4 stars
Mar 01, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, science
Not an overly technical book, but a good story without too much hero worship to cloud the history involved. A quick but thorough read on the beginning of germ science in medicine, particularly the story of Ignac Semmelweis and the problems he both encountered and created when trying to implement hand-washing as standard hospital procedure. Very interesting and definitely worth the time.
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Sherwin Nuland was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He was the author of The New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winning How We Die, and has also written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

His NYTimes obit:

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