In the non-pissing-me-off category, I picked up a copy of The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis, by Sherwin Nuland. I’ve always been interested in Semmelweis, ever since an undergrad history/philosophy of science course. From perspectives of science studies, medicine, and inequality, his is an intriguing story. For the most part, the first half of the book is interesting, if a bit slow. It sets up the near-epidemic problem of “childbed fever” in the 19th century, when a host of factors (urban migration, professional projects of physicians, and, sort of ironically, the push for mechanical understandings of anatomy) combined to make infection a serious, but mysterious, killer.
I’ll have a few more comments when I finish off the book. If you pick up a copy, however, do yourself a favor: Skip the first chapter, which is a fictionalized account of a young woman’s experience. Trust me. You don’t want to read Nuland’s imagination at work in this one, not because the scene is grisly (though it is), but because, describing the affair that led to pregnancy, Nuland wrote this (emphasis mine):
And then early one evening when her Papa thought she was at a friend’s house, she gave herself to the ardent boy, right there in the fields under a setting sun. They had been speaking of Goethe, and the young philosopher was comparing his lovesickness to Werther’s.
She at first had no regrets for her impulsive behavior, only a sense of wonder and a flowering joy whose petals were opening toward even better days to come. But the boy was inexplicably hesitant to go with her to the pretty little house on the Gartenstrasse to meet Papa.
I nearly quit right there. Skip to chapter 2, where Nuland begins to tell the non-fiction part of the story.