We’re publishing our first ever review of a play today – Dr. Semmelweiss, which was devised by, and stars, Mark Rylance. It’s about a 19th century doctor who made a life-saving medical discovery but was disbelieved by the medical establishment because they were too attached to their wrongheaded theories. Quite relevant to where we find ourselves today, in other words. The review is by Edward Chancellor, a financial journalist and the author of Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation. Here are the first four paragraphs:
The actor Mark Rylance is currently performing in the title role of an interesting new play at the Bristol Old Vic. Based on an original idea of Rylance’s and scripted by Stephen Brown, Dr. Semmelweiss relates the true story of a physician who, while working at the Vienna General Hospital in the mid-19th century, discovered a simple procedure that dramatically reduced the death rate for patients in his care.
Semmelweiss observed that maternity wards overseen by doctors experienced many more deaths than those attended only by midwives. He attributed the difference to the fact that medics went straight from performing autopsies on dead women to delivering babies, whereas midwives were kept out of the dissecting chamber. Semmelweiss concluded that the doctors must be infecting their patients with what he called “cadaveric particles”, and recommended that they wash their hands in chlorinated water before entering the wards. After this recommendation was put into practice, the death rate from childbed fever (puerperal sepsis) collapsed.
Despite Semmelweiss’ brilliant discovery, the Viennese medical establishment refused to accept his ideas and the wretched doctor, driven mad by his failure to prevent unnecessary deaths, ends up in a lunatic asylum. His failure owes something to his personality: in the play he is portrayed as excitable, self-absorbed, intolerant, sanctimonious and, at times, cruel in his obsessive desire to get his ideas accepted. As a result, he alienates both sympathetic colleagues and a lady grandee from Court who wanted to help. Visionaries are often difficult characters.
But the greatest obstacle turned out to be Semmelweiss’ superior, Dr. Johann Klein. Klein had his own pet theory as to the cause of childbirth deaths: he believed that the sickness was airbone and advocated more fresh air in the wards. Besides, Klein feared that Semmelweiss’ notions contradicted the findings of a recent Imperial Commission and he didn’t want to offend the hospital’s benefactors. Even though Semmelweiss’ experiments proved he was wrong, Klein refused to heed the evidence.
Worth reading in full.
You can buy tickets to Dr. Semmelweiss here.