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October 7, 1968


JAMA. 1968;206(2):367. doi:10.1001/jama.1968.03150020083019

In 1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes described the contagiousness of puerperal fever as "a momentous fact which is no longer to be considered as a subject for trivial discussions, but to be acted upon with silent promptitude."1 Yet 18 years later there was little evidence of action, silently prompt or any other kind. Thus, in 1861, Semmelweiss wrote2:

During the examination of gravidae, parturients, and puerperae, the hand contaminated by cadaveric particles is brought into contact with the genitals of these individuals, and hence the possibility of absorption, and by means of absorption, introduction of cadaveric particles into the vascular system of these individuals is postulated....

We know now that these men were prophets. By the end of the 19th century the antiseptic-aseptic principle was generally accepted. Most 20th century physicians know about the appalling epidemics of childbed fever only if they happen to study medical history. Occasionally, however, puerperal