In 1843, physician Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote and published The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, an essay about puerperal fever, a disease that occurs mainly as a result of bacterial infection in the uterine tract of women after giving birth or undergoing an abortion. In the essay, Holmes argues that puerperal fever is spread through birth attendants like physicians and midwives who make contact with the disease and carry it from patient to patient. The article was published in The New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Surgery in 1843. Holmes, who lived in Boston, Massachusetts, later republished his essay as a private publication in 1855 with a different title, Puerperal Fever as a Private Pestilence. Holmes's essay was one of the first publications to present puerperal fever as a contagious disease and to discuss preventative measures to inhibit the spread of puerperal fever, which helped preserve the lives of pregnant women and their newborns.
Etienne Stephane Tarnier was a physician who worked with premature infants in France during the nineteenth century. He worked at the Maternité Port-Royal in Paris, France, a hospital for poor pregnant women. Tarnier developed and introduced prototypes of infant incubators to the Maternité in 1881. Tarnier's incubators became standard in neonatal care, especially for premature infants, enabling doctors to save many such infants that previously would have died.
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis demonstrated that the use of disinfectants could reduce the occurrence of puerperal fever in patients in nineteenth century Austria. Puerperal fever is a bacterial infection that can occur in the uterine tract of women after giving birth or undergoing an abortion. Semmelweis determined that puerperal fever is contagious and argued that the unhygienic practices of physicians, like examining patients after performing autopsies, caused the spread of puerperal fever. He showed that if physicians washed their hands with a chloride solution before they attended patients, then they prevented those patients from developing puerperal fever. Despite being widely criticized during his lifetime, Semmelweis's research on the contagiousness of puerperal fever set a precedent for many scientists, and contributed to preventing the spread of puerperal fever.
Leonard Colebrook was a physician who researched bacteria and infections in England during the twentieth century. In 1936, Colebrook deployed the antibiotic Prontosil to treat puerperal fever, a disorder that results from bacterial infections in the uterine tracts of women after childbirth or abortions. Colebrook also advanced care for burn patients by advocating for the creation of burn units in hospitals and by using antisepsis medication for burn wound infections. Colebrook’s work on treatments for puerperal fever reduced cases of puerperal fever throughout the world.
Between 1935 and 1937, Leonard Colebrook showed that sulfonamides, a class of antibacterial drugs, worked as an effective treatment for puerperal fever. Puerperal fever is a bacterial infection that can occur in the uterus of women after giving birth. At the time of Colebrook’s study, puerperal fever remained a common disease due to both the lack of hygienic practices in hospitals and a treatment for the disease. After successfully using Prontosil, a sulfanilamide, to cure a patient who was going to die from puerperal fever, Colebrook began experiments with the drug. He successfully treated patients with puerperal fever with sulfonamides, specifically Prontosil and sulfanilamide. Colebrook conducted the experiment from 1935 to 1936 primarily at the Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London, England. After Colebrook’s success using antibacterial drugs in treating puerperal fever, use of antibacterial drugs became widespread in developed countries and, by the 1950s, it had made maternal deaths rare in those countries.