A Reconsideration of Celine's Semmelweis

By Ifri, Pascal A. | West Virginia University Philological Papers, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

A Reconsideration of Celine's Semmelweis


Ifri, Pascal A., West Virginia University Philological Papers


One of the most neglected works of Louis-Ferdinand Celine is his first published one, La Vie et 1 'aeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis, which first appeared in 1924 at a time when Celine was still Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, eight years before Voyage au bout de la nuit, the novel that was to make him famous. A thesis toward the medical degree, Semmelweis is in fact a short biography of Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who, some fifty years before Louis Pasteur discovered the existence and the danger of bacteria, realized that the deadly puerperal fever that frequently infected mothers delivering babies was caused by doctors who failed to disinfect their hands.

Born in Budapest in 1818, Semmelweis first went to Vienna in order to study law but quickly switched to medicine. Studying with a brilliant practitioner named Doctor Skoda, he received his medical degree in 1844 and became a specialist in obstetrics at the Vienna General Hospital in 1846. Soon, he noticed that mothers who were delivered by medical students in one clinic died of puerperal fever at a much higher rate than in another clinic where they were delivered by midwives. After he suggested that the medical students and the midwives switched clinics, the former retained their higher mortality rates. Since the students went straight from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies, Semmelweis concluded that they were passing germs to the mothers and recommended that they disinfect their hands before going to the delivery rooms. However, the students, supported by the doctors in charge, refused to follow his advice. Semmelweis became so angry that his superiors, who did not approve of his ideas, fired him. Aft er several years of inactivity, he went back to work, in Budapest, after promising he would not force medical students to wash their hands before delivering babies. However, he did not abandon his cause and published his theory, The Etiology of Puerperal Fever, in 1861, followed by open letters to "all Professors of Obstetrics." Unfortunately, by that time, Semmelweis, frustrated by the rejection of his ideas by the international medical community, had begun to lose his mind and to hallucinate. In 1865, just after he had to resign his position,

Vera deux heures, on le vit devaler travers les rues, poursuivi par la meute de ses ennemis fictifs. C'est en hurlant, debraille, qu'il parvint de la sorte jusqu'aux amphitheatres d'anatomie de la faculte. Un cadavre etait la, sur le marbre, au milieu du cours, pour une demonstration. Semmeiweis s'eniparant d'un scalpel, franchit le cercle des eleves. bousculant plusieurs chaises, s'approche du marbre, incise la peau du cadavre et taille dans les tissus putrides, avant qu'on ait pu l'empecher, au hasard de sea iinpulsions, detachant lea muscles par lambeaux qu'il projette au loin. Il accompagne sea manaeuvres d'exclamations et de phrases sans suite...

Les etudiants I'not reconnu, mais son attitude eat si menacante que personne n'ose l'interrompre... II ne sait plus... Il reprend son scalpel et fouille avec ses doigts en meme temps qu'avec la lame une cavite cada verique suintante d'humeurs. Par un geste plus saccade que lea autres, ii se coupe profondement.

Sa blessure saigne. Il erie. Il menace. On le desarme. On I'entoure. Mais il est trop tad... Comme Kolletchka naguere, il vient de s'infecter mortellement. (1)

Semmelweis was then sent to an insane asylum where the infection took his life a few weeks later.

Semmelweis was then sent to an insane asylum where the infection took his life a few weeks later.

Semmelweis is by no means what one would expect today from a medical thesis. First of all, it is a purely biographical work that does not address Semmelweis's theories from a medical or scientific standpoint. For example, it does not analyze or even discuss The Etiology of Puerperal Fever. …

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