Sunday, July 3, 2011

Research - Medical History

I'm in the middle of doing research for a future installment of my Night Watchman series. I wanted two of my characters to become nurses in training for a local doctor, so I am reading about the history of medicine.

It's fascinating stuff. It seems that medicine in the Western world was stalled, with some exceptions, until after World War I. One mighty example was the debate over cleanliness. Joseph Lister, building on work of others like Pasteur, proposed a system by which doctors would wash their hands and instruments before seeing patients.

This was pooh-poohed by many others in the medical field, leading to a raging debate. Some insisted that washing hands was actually unsafe - doctors needed to build up a "good layer of blood and pus" in order to give the benefit of their hard work to their patients. (Yeah, I don't get that either.)

It was attitudes like these that certainly killed President Garfield. Hit by an assassin's bullet, he would have easily recovered if the many doctors attending him had washed their scalpels before they began prodding the wound. Once doctor, in fact, came straight from a farm where he had been attending as a veterinarian. You can just imagine what was all over his hands - manure, in fact, was supposed to beneficial as well. Lovely.

When Garfield died of a raging fever, not from the bullet, the subsequent autopsy showed pockets of infection all through his body. The doctors were puzzled, since a build up of pus was supposed to be a good thing.

This attitude persisted into the 1900's. Perhaps part of the problem was the thriving business of medical training - schools sprang up all across the United States to train doctors. The business of training accounted for at least one fifth of income in most cities. The schools, however, consisted of little or no actual education, offering certificates to those who could come up with the several hundred dollars and a black bag with buckles.

I just can't wait to use some of this stuff in my new book (as soon as I finish editing the one I just wrote, The Lamplighter's Special.) That's one of the joys of writing - getting to showcase some new knowledge, in the supporting structure of fiction.

5 comments:

Heather M. O'Connor said...

Wow! Gives new meaning to truth is stranger than fiction. Thanks for sharing the interesting stories. I hadn't heard the one about Garfield.

Krista M said...

Wow, poor President Garfield. That's pretty gross that they didn't wash their hands. I guess to some extreme, it can be similar to what is happening now. Some people believe that our obsession with hand sanitizer is killing germs that are helpful and creating super germs. I'm just glad that my doctor washes his hands. :)

Rachel Brooks said...

Oh my! Not washing their hands and instruments? *shudders* I'm so thankful I was born in a time when we know about safe medicinal practices. It's great that you're learning so much for your book! :)

Queen Makeda's Sister said...

Fascinating stuff, Alison! You might be interested in reading about a nineteenth century physician named Ignaz Semmelweis who made the connection between the lack of hand-washing and a higher mortality rate. Good luck with all your research and your next book. :-)

Alison said...

Semmelweis - I never ran across that name during my research. Will definitely have to check that out! thanks so much!