I am a great fan of Ignaz Semmelweis. I met him when researching my book on Hitler and his time in Vienna. I found the story compelling. Here was a physician who saw the obvious–not the easiest thing to do. Faced with mortality rates of 10 to 35% for women giving birth in the clinics of Vienna in the mid nineteenth century, he looked for reasons rather than excuses. These women died of what was called puerperal fever following childbirth. In fact, the Vienna General Hospital’s obstetric clinic had three times the mortality rate of the midwife’s ward.
Semmelweis, something of an outsider to Vienna at the time as a Hungarian practicing in Vienna, looked outside of the box. What was the difference here? Well, number one, many of the physicians working in the obstetric wards began their days performing autopsies and dissections in the morgue in the basement of the General Hospital. They were quite literally digging their hands into the viscera of dead bodies teaming with millions of bacteria. But of course at this time the germ theory had not yet been advanced. Bacteria was a word that awaited another century. But using simple empirical evidence, Semmelweis thought that perhaps there was a connection between those doctors dipping their hands into the open cavities of dead people, wiping them off on their soiled white jackets, and then proceeding to assist in the birth of babies, and the subsequent death of the mothers. He proposed a simple experiment: before proceeding to work on healthy individuals, doctors should wash their hands in a solution of lime and chlorine.
The mortality rate in birthing wards dropped dramatically to below 1%.
Semmelweis the hero, no? No. Semmelweis the Hungarian doctor became the scourge of the Viennese medical establishment. Facts did not get in the way of prejudice. And the fact that Semmelweis could offer no scientific reason for his turn around aided the idiots. At 47 Semmelweis, driven to the wall by his critics, had a nervous breakdown (some speculate it was the tertiary stage of syphilis contracted in this work as an obstetrician), and was admitted to a Viennese asylum where he died of septicemia, blood poisoning from a wound he may have contracted from a beating by an asylum guard. The irony of this death has not gone unnoticed in subsequent generations. At about the time of his death, Semmelweis’s seminal work was vindicated by French researcher Louis Pasteur who confirmed the germ theory.
It’s a story and a half, and I was appropriately smitten with the man and his tragic tale. Thus, when my first child was about to be born, I chose the Semmelweis Clinic in Vienna.
We had recently returned from Ireland where the doctors denied not once, not twice, but three times the fact of pregnancy (just kill the damn rabbit, will you), and we were happy to be back in the land of what we thought to be modern medicine.
We signed up for the prenatal classes like good little parents to be, blew out the candle religiously, counted the spaces between breaths, between possible contractions, preparing ourselves for the big day.
Like most such big days ours came in the middle of the night. No to worry: hop a taxi from our flat in the Thirteenth District all the way to the clinic in the Eighteenth. The taxi driver enjoyed the bit of excitement, especially after being notified
the water had already broken.
Fine so far. Check in at emergency. Great. On our way.
But then there was one little complication. A nurse points to a sign by the door to the birthing ward: “Open 6 a.m. to 12 a.m.”. (Well actually, Geöffnet 6 bis 24 Uhr, but let’s not get into the niceties of the twenty-four-hour clock.)
It read like the opening hours at a café not a hospital.
“I’m not a visitor,” I told the woman politely. “I’m the husband.”
“The women need their privacy.”
How are you going to argue with that logic?
So much for blowing out the candle.
Those hours, they were not just for the one ward, but for the whole hospital. No mooching about in the corridor till daybreak.
The same taxi was still outside. The driver remembered my home address.
By the time I got back there in the morning, the process had not much progressed, but by late that afternoon, the crown of a baby appeared, and the amazing took place soon thereafter. For those of you yet to experience it, I will provide no
spoilers. It was pure luck that baby waited for the opening hours.
I guess in my enthusiasm regarding Semmelweis, I had forgotten the obvious: it was Vienna, after all, not San Francisco. I was reminded of that fact by another oddity of the city surrounding childbirth.
There was, at that time, an approved list of names for children. One did not run into many Sunshines or Teepees in Vienna. But what objections could there be to “Tess”? A good, solid, honest name; one with literary resonance, even.
“Theresa, yes, Herr Jones,” the official told me at the birth registry office. “The name of a great empress, Maria Theresa. Shall we list it as Theresa, then?”
He had the nib of the pen to his tongue as I quite plainly replied, “No. We won’t make it Theresa.”
It took a note from the American embassy to finally allow the use of Tess.