Childbed Fever

phys_rec_bookhere Childbirth was extremely dangerous in the 19th early 20th Century. In this photograph neither Mrs. Gilmer nor her her baby survived.

Childbed fever which is also known as puerperal fever was the number one killer of mothers in the 1800s. Puerperal comes from the word puerpera meaning “a woman who had just given birth.” The symptoms of this disease included: shivering, pain in the uterus, increase pressure to the stomach, suppression of lochia and milk, accelerated pulse, furred tongue, great heat of skin, and great pain in the forehead. These symptoms didn’t arise right away. A woman typically delivered on Monday, was happy and healthy on Tuesday, but on Wednesday she came down with a fever and from there on all the other symptoms would arise. This is detailed in the document above. The doctor describes his patient’s delivery, her pains and the position of the baby, he then goes on to note that he left the mother in good condition, but over the course of the next ten days she went through agnozing pain, and passed away. The earlier that these symptoms started the worse the prognosis. Ninety percent of deaths occured before the forty-second postnatal day. Many women who suffered from this disease were in so much pain that they couldn’t bear the touch of clothing on their stomachs and so they stripped off all of their clothes in their delirium. This disease was fatal in more than half of the cases. It was prevalent among young women who had just delivered their first babies. After many of their patients had died from this disease they opened the cadavers and found them full of abscesses. Women who delivered in clinics had higher chances of contracting childbed fever. One in twenty-nine women who delivered in the clinic died of this disease, while one in two hundred twelve died who delivered at home. This disease accounted for eighty percent or more of maternal mortality.

During the 1800s there were many theories as to the cause of this horrible illness known as childbed fever. One such theory was that it was caused as the result of the “tightness of stays and petticoat bindings and the wight of the pockets of the petticoats.” It was believed that stays and peticoats pressed the intestines and blocked excretion which then caused the body to reabsorb it waste. Other physicians contributed the disease to: inactive lifestyle, improper diet, and the attendance of friends in a small room during delivery. Most asserted that childbed fever was caused by the atmosphere during delivery. When a woman was in labour she was kept in the bedroom, every door and window were closed to prevent the mother from catching cold, the curtains were drawned and pinned around her bed, and every opening except for the key hole was left. This resulted in putrid air and made the women sweat profusely. In addition, the women in labour was only given hot drinks.

Treatment of childbed fever consisted of bloodletting and purging. Blood was taken by either opening the veins and arteries or by placing leeches on the patients. Semmelveis, a Hungarian physician said that there wasn’t a proper treatment the only thing that could be done was to prevent the disease from happening in the first place. As a result, he invented a chlorine solution and required that all of the doctors wash their hands with it after examining the cadavers. Semmelveis noticed that nearly all the midwives didn’t work with cadavers and thus many of them only lost a few women to childbed fever. Where as, the physicians, especially himself worked with cadavers a lot and they had very high maternal mortality rates. Semmelveis is remembered as the “savior of mothers.”

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