My babies were delivered in hospitals, safely and pleasantly enough. But delivering in a hospital was not always so safe. Many women died in European and American lying-in hospitals in the 17th to 19th centuries from childbed fever – an infection of streptococcal bacteria in the uterus that spread to the bloodstream causing sepsis and, usually, death. Childbed fever can occur in women who deliver at home, but it was so prevalent in lying-in hospitals because doctors unwittingly spread the bacteria from one woman to another through bad hygiene. Mortality rates averaged around 1 in 5 to 1 in 4, with some epidemics being close to 100% mortality.
Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, began looking at mortality in the maternity ward at the General Hospital in Vienna in 1846. He noted that doctors patients died at a rate 5 times higher than the midwives patients and set out to find out why. Ahead of his time, and without knowledge of microbiology, he came up with a procedure that dropped maternal mortality by 90%. It was washing hands in a chlorine solution.Read More