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The fascinating story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a nineteenth-century obstetrician ostracized for his strident advocacy of disinfection as a way to prevent childbed fever
In Genius Belabored: Childbed Fever and the Tragic Life of Ignaz Semmelweis, Theodore G. Obenchain traces the life story of a nineteenth-century Hungarian obstetrician who was shunned and marginalized by the medical establishment for advancing a far-sighted but unorthodox solution to the appalling mortality rates that plagued new mothers of the day.
In engrossing detail, Obenchain recreates for readers the sights, smells, and activities within a hospital of that day. In an era before the acceptance of modern germ science, physicians saw little need for cleanliness or hygiene. As a consequence, antiseptic measures were lax and rudimentary. Especially vulnerable to contamination were new mothers, who frequently contracted and died from childbed fever (puerperal fever). Genius Belabored follows Semmelweis’s awakening to the insight that many of these deaths could be avoided with basic antiseptic measures like hand washing.
The medical establishment, intellectually unprepared for Semmelweis’s prescient hypothesis, rejected it for a number of reasons. It was unorthodox and went against the lingering Christian tradition that the dangers of childbirth were inherent to the lives of women. Complicating matters, colleagues did not consider Semmelweis an easy physician to work with. His peers described him as strange and eccentric. Obenchain offers an empathetic and insightful argument that Semmelweis suffered from bipolar disorder and illuminates how his colleagues, however dedicated to empirical science they might have been, misjudged Semmelweis’s methods based upon ignorance and their emotional discomfort with him.
In Genius Belabored, Obenchain identifies Semmelweis’s rightful place in the pantheon of scientists and physicians whose discoveries have saved the lives of millions. Obenchain’s biography of Semmelweis offers unique insights into the practice of medicine and the mindsets of physicians working in the premodern era. This fascinating study offers much of interest to general readers as well as those interested in germ theory, the history of medicine and obstetrics, or anyone wishing to better understand the trajectory of modern medicine.
About the Author
Theodore G. Obenchain is a retired neurosurgeon with several surgical instrument patents in his name and is the author of The Victorian Vivisection Debate: Francis Power Cobbe, Experimental Science, and the “Claims of Brutes,” as well as numerous professional journal articles.
“[T]he strength of Obenchain's book lies in his attention to multiple contexts--institutional, professional, theoretical, political, social, and historical--that defined each period of Semmelweis's career, begginning with the simultaneous stagnation and innovation that marked a tempestuous period in the history of the Vienna General Hospital (Allegemeines Krankenhous), the hostile setting is which Semmelweis did his research and instituted effective preventive measures. Recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates; practitioners and general readers.”
“Without a doubt and without any exaggeration, this book is the best thing that has been written about Semmelweis. It shows incredibly thorough research, it is balanced, it is clear, it is totally persuasive, it is even a fantastically good read! . . . Its medical detail is impressive and exceeds that in any other account of the doctor’s life. Obenchain’s argument that Semmelweis suffered from bipolar disorder is original, and no other work has supported the hypothesis of Semmelweis’s mental illness so thoroughly.”
—K. Codell Carter, author of Childbed Fever: A Scientific Biography of Ignaz Semmelweis and translator of Semmelweis’s The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever
“Obenchain carefully addresses the complex, and at times confusing, sources of Semmelweis’s personality disorders. This is a well-researched, well-written, sympathetic account of an important figure in nineteenth-century medicine.”
—Michael A. Flannery, author of Civil War Pharmacy: A History of Drugs, Drug Supply and Provisions, and Therapeutics for the Union and Confederacy and editor of The English Physician