Cumulative vs. Cyclical Knowledge
President James Garfield died because the best doctors in the country didn’t believe in germs, probing Garfield’s bullet wound after an assassination attempt with ungloved, unwashed fingers that almost certainly contributed to his fatal infection.
It sounds crazy – 1881 wasn’t that long ago – but historian Candice Millard writes in her book Destiny of the Republic how controversial germ theory was to 19th-century doctors:
They found the notion of “invisible germs” to be ridiculous, and they refused to even consider the idea that they could be the cause of so much disease and death.
Even the editor of the highly respected Medical Record found more to fear than to admire in [antiseptic pioneer] Lister’s theory. “Judging the future by the past,” he wrote, “we are likely to be as much ridiculed in the next century for our blind belief in the power of unseen germs as our forefathers were for their faith in the influence of spirits.”
Not only did many American doctors not believe in germs, they took pride in the particular brand of filth that defined their profession.
They spoke fondly of the “good old surgical stink” that pervaded their hospitals and operating rooms, and they resisted making too many concessions even to basic hygiene … They believed that the thicker the layers of dried blood and pus, black and crumbling as they bent over their patients, the greater the tribute to their years of experience … They preferred, moreover, to rely on their own methods of (Read more...)