I’m getting into the section of this book now where the Germ Theory is being discussed. The reckless, selfish, and ego-based resistance to even considering it by many (especially American doctors) we’ve discussed before regarding another book. (I forget which one.)
Still, it’s astounding to read how callous doctors were back then. (Hope things have gotten better.) You’d think that when your surgery patients are dying left and right from infection that you’d at least entertain looking at better methods.
One of the truisms illustrated in this is that it often isn’t until the old guard retires or dies that new and better ideas are adopted. And regardless of whatever theory held the day, it was Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War, and the enlistment of women as professional nurses that made progress in hospitals possible by cleaning things up and bringing order.
And, of course, there was resistance to women having anything to do with having any kind of authority over patients or doctors. Nightingale placated most of the wounded egos with a strict rule that nurses never hand out any medical advice and to tell patients who have questions, “Do whatever the doctor advises.”
Some critics (rightly so) say this led to nurses being looked at as mere grunt workers even though in years to come their training was immense. Initial recruits into the new profession of nursing were carefully filtered. Let’s just say that particularly good-looking women were not wanted. And specifically virtuous women (not a bad idea at all) were required.
But hospitals were so dirty and horrible in those days it wasn’t necessarily a foolish opinion to suppose that women (as full-time professional nurses…there had always been part-time or short-term mostly unskilled help) couldn’t cut it. The nearly robotic hard-working and incorruptible Catholic Sisters of Charity were instrumental in paving the way for women in the nursing corps. These Sisters had impressed a great many.
And although these attributes listed below are still likely true to some extent of the fairer sex, it’s clear that men have their attributes they must battle as well, such as being pompous asses:
The greatest fear, however, was that trained female nurses might challenge the doctor’s authority—or worse, try to become doctors themselves. The American Medical Association spoke directly to this problem when it described nursing as “an art and science” in the hands of properly trained women, while also listing the deficiencies that prevented them from ever becoming good physicians: “uncertainty of rational judgment, capriciousness of sentiment, fickleness of purpose, and indecision of action.”
Pasteur’s and Lister’s work (and bona fide tangible results from that work) had been known for decades. But the “rational,” “non-fickle,” unsentimental doctors and others had let thousands of patients die horribly because of their massive oversized egos.
At about this point in the book (43%) it talks about cocaine being discovered as a useful local anesthetic. Some doctors, not wishing to subject their patients to something without trying it out on themselves, got hooked on the stuff. One famous fellow who eventually followed his friend, William Welch, to the new Johns Hopkins — William Halsted – battled the drug for the rest of his life. He would go into and out of periods of heavy use. Rather than firing him, they put up with him. The author writes that “It was the price that Johns Hopkins silently paid to have the brilliant Halsted around.”
Giving a major boost to germ theory was the botched job the leading doctors of the day did on treating President Garfield for a bullet that was lodged in him. Present-day opinion is that if they’d have simply disinfected the entry wound and left him alone, he’d have been fine. But these leading “experts” almost certainly doomed Garfield by poking and prodding dirty fingers and instruments into him to find the bullet (which they never did). Thomas Edison was enlisted to invent a device that would find it. But he wasn’t successful.