The Silent And Painful Killer: "Childbed Fever"

The feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft met her end at the hands of a medical mystery that killed scores of 18th century mothers. Why?

Wollstonecraft's death, following the birth of her daughter, the future Mary Shelley, was typical of the times in which she lived: "A part of her placenta needed to be pulled out by a doctor's hand. She developed puerperal sepsis, an infection of the genital tract, which very painfully, and over the period of about a week, killed her." These were the days of rampant puerperal, or childbed, fever, spread by doctors and midwives and a mystery to everyone.

"In the first half of the nineteenth century about five European women in a thousand died from childbirth. Death rates in maternity hospitals were often ten times that; the hospitals stayed open because doctors had an incurable faith in good intentions, and patients a poor grasp of mortality statistics. The physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes led the American campaign to stop the spread of the disease by getting doctors to wash their hands. Obstetricians felt slighted. 'Doctors are gentlemen,' said Charles Meigs of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, arguing that no such care was needed, 'and gentlemen's hands are clean.'

It's now generally accepted that, while still somewhat mysterious, childbed fever was caused by the streptococcus pyogenes organism, the same bacteria that cause strep throat and a host of other virulent ailments. Although it still exists, it can be treated with antibiotics and there has not been an outbreak in over forty years. And yet, the author asserts, childbirth hygiene standards are slipping. While we appreciate the end of sterility, anyone who reads the account of Mary Wollstonecraft's death can only thank God for gloves, soap and faucets.

When Childbirth Was Natural, and Deadly [Livescience]