Puerperal Fever: Definition & History

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson goes over the history of something known as puerperal fever. You'll learn what this condition is as well as some of the important players involved in minimizing its deadly effects.

Puerperal Fever

Purple fever? No, this has nothing to do with the artist formerly known as Prince. It's puerperal fever. The word 'puerperal' comes to us from the Latin word for childbirth. And no, this fever isn't some sort of childbirth craze. It's a real fever, stemming from a really serious problem. Puerperal fever is the term used to describe an illness, characterized in part by a fever, which stems from an infection of a woman's reproductive organs following childbirth or abortion.

This lesson goes over this condition's historical aspects.

Early History

Not all that long ago, the process of childbirth wasn't anything like it is today. The risk of dying during childbirth or shortly thereafter was much greater. The reasons for this were many. For example, doctors (all men, not long ago) had nothing to do with childbirth as it was considered improper for a man to be present during childbirth. So, midwives were tasked with assisting during childbirth. The problem was that many midwives were completely incompetent.

Even when doctors finally (literally) entered the business of childbirth around the 1800s, they weren't much better at things either. In fact, many were much worse than even the worst of the midwives! Again, the reasons were many, but the fact that medical schools back in the day didn't pay much attention to the concepts surrounding childbirth probably didn't help things.

That being said, even the most skilled midwives and doctors of the day had plenty of patients die from puerperal fever, but no one really knew why that was the case at first. Such deaths were bad for business and reputation, so much so that doctors would forge death certificates and simply state that a woman died from a fever as opposed to puerperal fever.

Ignaz Semmelweis

In the late 1840s, a German-Hungarian physician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis, finally figured out some of the processes behind puerperal fever. He did so through very careful observation and experimentation at a clinic he was working at. First, Semmelweis figured out that more women died from puerperal fever if they were assisted by doctors than if they were assisted by midwives.

Ignaz Semmelweis
Ignaz Semmelweis

Next, Semmelweis noticed that pathologists (doctors) who performed autopsies on women who died from puerperal fever could die themselves from the same signs and symptoms. Finally, Semmelweis noticed that doctors who delivered babies were sometimes performing autopsies on corpses immediately before going to a delivery, something midwives didn't do. This meant the doctors were spreading whatever caused the fever to women!

Semmelweis didn't know much about germs as the germ theory of disease had no solid evidence at the time. He just thought that pieces of the cadaver transferred from the corpse to the woman giving birth were the cause of the fever.

As a result, Semmelweis ordered all the medical staff to thoroughly clean their hands, with chlorine no less. Chlorine is a very powerful disinfectant. But, again, he didn't order the use of chlorine because he thought that would kill germs, only because it would get rid of the smell of the corpse. This was a time in history when some people believed bad air could spread disease.

Be that as it may, the deaths from puerperal fever fell dramatically after Semmelweis' advice was followed. Unfortunately, his ideas didn't stick. First of all, he was a pain in the behind. Many people disliked him because he publicly scolded some very influential people that disagreed with him. Secondly, doctors didn't like the whole idea of being blamed for spreading puerperal fever. It was bad for business, remember?

So, Semmelweis lost his job. And the doctors? They stopped following Semmelweis' advice and stopped thoroughly washing their hands.

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