Cover image for The doctors' plague : germs, childbed fever, and the strange story of Ignác Semmelweis
The doctors' plague : germs, childbed fever, and the strange story of Ignác Semmelweis
Nuland, Sherwin B.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [2003]

Physical Description:
191 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RG811 .N85 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
RG811 .N85 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Ignac Semmelweis is remebered for the now commonplace notion that must wash their hands before examining patients. In mid-19th century Vienna, however, this was a subversive idea. This is the revealing narrative of one of the key turning points in medical history.

Author Notes

Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland was born Shepsel Ber Nudelman on December 8, 1930 in the Bronx, New York. He received a bachelor's degree from New York University in 1951 and a medical degree from Yale University in 1955. He decided to specialize in surgery and in 1958, became the chief surgical resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital. From 1962 to 1991, he was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, where he also taught bioethics and medical history. Before retiring to write full-time, he was a surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital from 1962 to 1992.

His books include Doctors: The Biography of Medicine, The Wisdom of the Body, The Doctors' Plague, The Uncertain Art, and the memoir Lost in America. His book, How We Die, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1994. He was also a contributing editor to The American Scholar and The New Republic. He died of prostate cancer on March 3, 2014 at the age of 83.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Nuland's second excellent book this year (after the superb memoir, Lost in America BKL N 15 02) focuses on a physician who, like Nuland in the midst of his career, suffered from severe psychological disease. Unlike Nuland, Ignac Semmelweis (1818-65) probably couldn't have recovered and, in any event, died under odd circumstances days after admission to a mental hospital. Nuland's thoughts about Semmelweis' illness and death are in the final chapter, and waiting for them is eminently worthwhile because of the riveting account of childbed, or puerperal, fever that comes first. Incidence of the bacterial disease attained massive proportions with the rise of the modern hospital and of giving birth there rather than at home, and enormous numbers of newborns as well as mothers perished. As the book's title suggests, dirty doctors (and medical students) spread the disease, for antisepsis and asepsis were unappreciated--indeed, unknown--until, after Semmelweis' death, Pasteur and Lister verified the existence and dangers of germs. A few physicians had figured out the how of puerperal fever before Semmelweis, but his fanaticism for cleanliness in practice at the general hospital in Vienna, the medical capital of Europe, demonstrated huge reductions in the disease. He failed to publish adequately, however, and establishment physicians, wedded to general theories of disease, pooh-poohed his practices, preventing their acceptance elsewhere. In the midst of the controversy, Semmelweis ran home to Pest, Hungary, a medical backwater, and into obscurity. This is one of the greatest stories in medical history, and perhaps no one has told it better than Nuland does. --Ray Olson Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1847, one out of every six women who delivered a baby in the First Division at the Allgemeine Krankenhaus hospital in Vienna died of childbed fever, a situation mirrored at other medical facilities in Europe and the U.S. Bestselling author Nuland (How We Die), a clinical professor of surgery at Yale, details in lively descriptive writing just how Ignac Semmelweis, an assistant physician at Allgemeine Krankenhaus, uncovered the origin of this devastating epidemic. Although theories were advanced that attributed it to unhealthy conditions in the expectant mother's body, Semmelweis launched his own investigation. He traced the high mortality rate from this fever in the First Division to the medical doctors, who went straight from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies without washing their hands; they were, in fact, infecting their own patients. Semmelweis's doctrine was controversial in medical circles, Nuland explains, partly because the eccentric physician's self-destructive personality alienated possible supporters. Drawing on careful research, the author convincingly argues that, contrary to popular myth, Semmelweis was not a persecuted victim but, despite his brilliance, was his own worst enemy. He was committed to a public mental institution and, according to Nuland, probably suffered from Alzheimer's and died from beatings administered by hospital personnel. In this engrossing story, Nuland shows how Semmelweis's groundbreaking discovery of how childbed fever was transmitted was later validated by the work of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister. (Oct.) FYI: This volume is the first in Norton's Great Discoveries series, which highlights scientific achievement. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The author of How We Die on the man whose simple notion that doctors spread disease by failing to wash their hands caused a revolution. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Childbed fever was once a major cause of death among new mothers. Theories about its cause abounded, and no effective way to control it existed. In 1847 Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician working in Vienna, discovered that the disease was transmitted between cadavers and patients by doctors, and that it could be prevented by requiring doctors to wash their hands in a chlorine solution. Although Semmelweis greatly reduced deaths in his clinics, his ideas were widely rejected. He died at the age of 47 in an insane asylum. Nuland (Yale), a physician and medical writer, contends that Semmelweis brought many problems on himself. A difficult personality in his later years, he alienated many supporters. He refused to perform laboratory experiments, and his long-delayed book, when published, was both difficult to read and full of diatribes. Nuland offers some interesting explanations of Semmelweis's political and personal difficulties; he also contends that his eventual insanity was due to early onset Alzheimer's. Although this book is flawed by its lack of notes and index and has only the briefest of bibliographies, it may be of interest to large libraries with history of medicine collections. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers, undergraduates, and practitioners. M. Taylor University of Colorado at Denver