Don’t Touch Dead Bodies!
In their book, None of These Diseases, physicians S.I. McMillen and David Stern discussed how that many of the hygienic rules established by God for the children of Israel still are applicable today. To illustrate their point, they recounted the story of Ignaz Semmelweis.
In 1847, an obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis was the director of a hospital ward in Vienna, Austria. Many pregnant women checked into his ward, but 18% of those women never checked out. One out of every six that received treatment in Semmelweis’ ward died of labor fever. Autopsies revealed pus under their skin, in their chest cavities, in their eye sockets, etc. Semmelweis was distraught over the mortality rate in his ward, and other hospital wards like it all over Europe. If a woman delivered a baby using a midwife, then the death fell to only 3%. Yet if she chose to use the most advanced medical knowledge and facilities of the day, her chance of dying skyrocketed to 18%!
Semmelweis had tried everything to curb the carnage. He turned all the women on their sides in hopes that the death rate would drop, but with no results. He thought maybe the bell that the priest rang late in the evenings scared the women. So, he made the priest enter silently, yet without any drop in death rates.
As he contemplated his dilemma, he watched young medical students perform their routine tasks. Each day the students would perform autopsies on the dead mothers. Then they would rinse their hands in a bowl of bloody water, wipe them off on a common, shared towel, and immediately begin internal examinations of the still-living women. As a twenty-first-century observer, you probably are appalled to think that such practices actually took place in institutes of what was at the time “modern technology.” What doctor in his right mind would touch a dead person and then perform examinations on living patients—without first employing some sort of minimal hygienic practices intended to kill germs? But to Europeans in the middle-nineteenth-century, germs were a foreign concept. They never had seen a germ, much less been able to predict its destructive potential. According to their theories, disease was caused by “atmospheric conditions” or “cosmic telluric influences.”
Semmelweis ordered everyone in his ward to wash thoroughly his or her hands in a chlorine solution after every examination. In three months, the death rate fell from 18% to 1%. Semmelweis had made an amazing discovery. Or had he? Is it possible that Dr. Semmelweis simply “rediscovered” what had been known in some circles for many years?
Almost 3,300 years before Semmelweis lived, Moses had written: “He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days. He shall purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean.” Germs were no new discovery in 1847; God had known about them all along. If only we would learn to give the Holy Scriptures the respect they deserve, we could save ourselves from so much sin, heartache, and death.
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