Hello! This is the 5th of 8 guest posts I’m making as part of the T2T blog tour. As an ex-professor and writer of historical fiction, my theme is Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Victorians. Yesterday, I talked about Victorian Poverty at The Epic Rat. Today’s topic is Cadavers and Childbirth, and it is going to be one of the grossest fairy tales ever. Please consider yourself warned.
Once upon a time, there was an observant Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis. Semmelweis worked in Vienna at two maternity clinics offering free care to poor women. The first was staffed by doctors and the second by midwives. Semmelweis noticed that at the doctor-staffed clinic, about 10% of the women died of something called childbed fever. In contrast, at the midwife-staffed clinic, about 4% of the women died of childbed fever (also called puerperal fever).
This didn’t make sense to Semmelweis. The higher death rate at the doctors’ clinic troubled him for years – until he realized that the doctors moved freely between the autopsy room and the delivery ward. (Yes, you read that correctly: they sliced open corpses, then went straight on to deliver babies without washing their hands in between!) Semmelweis theorized that the doctors were carrying something on their unwashed hands from the cadavers to the women in labour. In contrast, midwives – who did not perform autopsies – did not touch corpses and thus had lower rates of fever at their clinic.
Semmelweis introduced a policy of handwashing for doctors going from autopsy to patient examinations. The result was a dramatic drop in rates of puerperal fever. The difficulty was that when he published his findings, he couldn’t explain his results; the germ theory of disease hadn’t yet been proven. His proposal – that cleanliness was the most important factor in disease preventing – was considered extreme. He was fired, the clinic went back to its (literally) dirty-handed ways, and infection rates shot up once again.
What does this have to do with my novel? There’s no childbirth in Spy; no puerperal fever. But the scientific backdrop is the same. Scientists and citizens alike believed that bad smells – not germs – made you sick. Even Semmelweis acted on this: he instructed doctors to wash their hands with something close to bleach, to remove the smells – not the germs – of the autopsy room. And this suspicion of bad smells is an important part of the backdrop of Spy, which takes place during the Great Stink of 1858. I look forward to telling you more about it tomorrow, at the Story Siren.