The Mysterious Case of Childbed Fever

The greatly pregnant young woman slowly climbed the stairs of the most modern hospital in Austria, the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, or General Hospital, of Vienna. Her destination was the maternity ward. She was in labor and soon was going to give birth. At the top of the stairs, there was a doorway opening into a reception area. On the right was a hallway leading to Division 1, where doctors and medical students delivered babies. The hallway on the left led to Division 2, where midwives and their students attended the laboring mothers. As the young woman was led to the right, she remembered that other women had told her to avoid the doctors, since there were rumors that many of the women who went to the right never came back. “Oh well,” she thought, “they are probably being superstitious. After all, it is 1846 and a modern woman like me should choose a doctor over a midwife.” Nevertheless, a small tingle of worry remained. She had heard stories about women in labor who, upon being sent to Division 1, would panic and beg to be discharged from the hospital and sent home.

The young woman delivered a baby boy, and at first it seemed to her that her future was a bright one. However, a few hours after her baby was born, she started to feel a pain in her lower abdomen. The pain was much worse when any of the sore areas were touched. She became nauseous, vomiting frequently, and her pain worsened. Suffering with a high fever and a racing pulse, her abdomen filled with gas, causing even greater pain. She continued to worsen in all regards. The wonderful future she dreamed about was not meant to be; she died three days after her baby’s birth.

Upon opening the body of the deceased woman during the autopsy, the doctors and the medical students who were there to observe encountered a terrible, foul stench in her abdomen. Inside, they observed that her uterus wall was swollen, and pus and putrid flesh were evident in the body cavity. The skin and flesh were filled with gaseous bubbles and a foul-smelling fluid. The doctors determined that the woman had died of childbed fever, a disease that claimed the lives of one out of every 10 women who delivered babies in Division 1 of the hospital.

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Why was giving birth so dangerous in the 1840s, and what has changed? We will find out shortly, while learning more about how the world works, thanks to the science of biology. This chapter will introduce you to the nature of science.