The Cry and the Covenant by Morton Thompson****1/2
In 1847 a sharp Hungarian doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis made a brilliant discovery. He found if doctors just washed their hands in chlorine solution, the death rate for Puerperal fever (which is caused by sepsis) could be brought down to less the 1%. Considering that the rate before this was a whopping 35%, this was a huge life saving discovery. The great unsettling mystery though, is why did the whole medical community ignore him? Didn’t doctors want to save lives? Were the lives of women just not important to them?
The Cry and the Covent is a fictional biography of Semmelweis’s life. Written back in 1949, it has an old feel to it. Most of the dialogue and action reminded me of old black and white movies. I especially thought this in the relationship between Semmelweis and his wife and the way they meet. In fact, I was so filled with the thought of old films, I got it into my head that Semmelweis looked just like Dirk Bogarde from the film Doctor in the House, and I couldn’t get rid of it, even though the real Semmelweis looked nothing like him. I think of the fifties being a gentler time, certainly more idealistic and this book certainly portrays that.
This book has another side though, a grim, grittiness about hospitals in the early eighteen hundreds that made my skin crawl. To think that doctors used to wipe blood and pus on their coat lapels to show how ‘experienced’ they were, or that they would go straight from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies without washing their hands is disgusting. Nobody changed the sheets in those days, so upon checking into the hospital you could expect a filthy bed with wet stains on it. If some of the home scenes came across as homespun and a bit sappy, the hospital scenes never did.
Thompson was a doctor and he did an excellent job of showing how nerve wracking it must be to study medicine. I felt the repulsion of cutting into a dead body for the first time. I experienced the terror of having a new patient and giving the wrong diagnosis. I felt the heartbreak of staying up all night trying to save someone’s life only to have them die. And I felt the excitement of coming on a great discovery. The way Semmelweis found out about how to eliminate sepsis when there wasn’t even a shred of proof of the existence of germs is quite fascinating. This book had some powerful moments.
So why did I give it only four 1/2 stars? I think a lot of it for me goes back to the mystery I mentioned above. I don’t think this book delves deep enough. I know doctors were probably loathe to change and hated to admit they were killing patients, but that can’t be just it. Semmelweis was treated like a pariah. They practically ruined him. I can’t help but think he must have been much more unlikable then he’s portrayed in this book. Yes the book addresses the prejudice the Austrians had for him since he was Hungarian and of lowly birth. And yes, the book addresses how uncomfortable Semmelweis was at writing about his own discovery, which I’m sure hurt him. But I felt like Thompson sort of glossed over those issues. I think one of the main problems was that Semmelweis showed proof that hand washing worked, but he couldn’t explain why it worked.
It fascinates me how some medical discoveries, like for instance ‘the lobotomy, were immediately accepted and traveled around the world like wildfire. Yet a simple procedure like washing your hands was almost completely ignored. What makes a new innovation come into being and what represses it? I still can’t help but wonder if a pharmaceutical company discovered the cure for cancer, would they ever release it to the world? They’d lose so much money.
Anyway, this was a thought provoking book for me.
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