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The first book - Doctors: The Biography of Medicine


Ignaz Semmelweis and hand-washing
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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I also wrote a few essays in the History of Medicine. I got very active in the History of Medicine, which I had been intrigued by since I started medical school. We've got a wonderful historical library here, some great collections, one of the finest medical historical libraries, literally in the world. I think probably the Countway in Boston has more. Maybe there's something in the national archives, I don't know. But Yale would rank second, third or fourth in the country in medical history, and it's a beautiful place to work and I'd done quite a bit of work there. And I got interested in the life of a fellow named Ignaz Semmelweis, who, in 18… in the 1840s, I think it was 1847, discovered that if you wash your hands, if you're an obstetrician, you're not going to kill the mothers. The frequency of death in university hospitals in Europe was 15-18% because the doctors were doing autopsies and then examining women, and they were contaminating them, because no one knew anything about germs at that time. But he was a man who said, you've got to wash your hands in chlorine water and that'll solve everything. And he was right, but he was also crazy and self-destructed at one point, just like I had. I became fascinated by his life, and I wrote an article for one of the medical history journals, the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, that became sort of a talking point for a lot of historians, because I presented a point of view about his self-destruction that was a new way of looking at him.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Countway Library of Medicine, Boston Medical Library, Yale University, Ignaz Semmelweis

Duration: 1 minute, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 04 November 2011