“Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean.”
Dr. Iganz Semmelweis had a serious problem. Women kept dying on him.
In 1847 Dr. Semmelweis was an obstetrician who directed a hospital ward in Vienna, Austria. 18% of the pregnant women who checked into his ward died. One out of every six who received treatment in his ward died of labor fever. Their autopsies revealed pus in their eye sockets, chest cavities, under the skin and in other places.
This was not only happening in Semmelweis’s ward; other hospital wards all over Europe were experiencing the same thing. In fact, according to medical researcher and historian Sherwin Nuland in his book, The Doctor’s Plague, during this time period Australia, the Americas, Britain, Ireland and practically every other nation which had established a hospital had the same mortality rate. Women who delivered their babies using midwives suffered only a 3% mortality rate, but those who chose to use the most advanced medical knowledge and facilities available in 1847 increased their chances of dying immensely!
Dr. Semmelweis was very upset over this, and who could blame him? So he tried everything he knew to do in order to stop the carnage. For example, he thought the bell the priests rang late in the evening might be scaring the women to death, so he made the priest enter their rooms silently. That didn’t work. The pregnant women kept dying. So he turned all the women on their sides, hoping that would somehow decrease the death rate. It didn’t.
As he agonized over how to save these women, he watched young medical students go about their routine daily tasks of performing autopsies on these dead mothers…after which they would rinse their hands in bowls of bloody water, wipe them off on a towel which they would share with each other…and then immediately begin their internal examinations of the mothers who were still living.
You guys catch that? (Hope none of you were eating anything while you’re reading this. If you are and feel a bit sick, my apologies.)
The idea of a doctor touching a dead person and then performing examinations on the living without employing at least the bare minimum of hygienic practices on himself to kill the germs horrifies us today, but Europeans in the 1840’s had no concept of germs. They had never seen one microscopically. They were not able to predict germs’ potential to harm and kill. They actually thought diseases were caused by “atmospheric conditions” or “cosmic telluric influences” (i.e., the planet Earth and space).
Working on a theory formed after observing what his medical students were doing, Semmelweis ordered everyone in his ward to wash their hands thoroughly in chlorine after every examination. In three months, the death rate fell from 18% to 1%. The good doctor had made an amazing discovery, one for which he is remembered today in the medical community.
Only…he wasn’t the first person to write about this.
Almost 3,300 years before Semmelweis was born, Moses had written Numbers 19:11-12. Everyone thought germs were a new discovery back in 1847, yet the Bible records measures to check their spread as far back as 1500 B.C. Here’s what’s even more interesting. None of the other ancient cultures were doing what Moses commanded Israel to do in the Pentateuch because none of them knew about germs and hygiene.
So how did Moses know? More specifically, if there is no God who inspired Moses to write the first five books of the Bible, how did he know these medical facts which no one else knew?
The Bible claims that the human authors who wrote the books which make up Scripture were inspired by God (2 Peter 1:19-21). Atheists and other skeptics deny this, claiming the Bible to be nothing more than a collection of ancient myths and superstitions.
Yet if they’re right, how did Moses know about germs and hygiene? It’s something to think about.
Think about it this week, and next week’s column will talk more about this…