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According to Wikipedia*, “Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865) was the Hungarian physician who demonstrated that puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) was contagious and that its incidence could be drastically reduced by enforcing appropriate hand-washing behavior by medical care-givers. He made this discovery in 1847 while working in the Maternity Department of the Vienna Lying-in Hospital. His failure to convince his fellow doctors led to a tragic conclusion, however, he was ultimately vindicated.
Semmelweis realized that the number of cases of puerperal fever was much larger at one of his wards than at the other. After testing a few hypotheses, he found that the number of cases was drastically reduced if the doctors washed their hands carefully before dealing with a pregnant woman. Risk was especially high if they had been in contact with corpses before they treated the women. The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed at the time. Thus, Semelweiss concluded that some unknown “cadaveric material” caused childbed fever.
He lectured publicly about his results in 1850, however, the reception by the medical community was cold, if not hostile. His observations went against the current scientific opinion of the time, which blamed diseases on an imbalance of the basical “humours” in the body. It was also argued that even if his findings were correct, washing one’s hands each time before treating a pregnant woman, as Semmelweis advised, would be too much work. Nor were doctors eager to admit that they had caused so many deaths. Semmelweis spent 14 years developing his ideas and lobbying for their acceptance, culminating in a book he wrote in 1861. The book received poor reviews, and he responded with polemic. In 1865, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an insane asylum where he soon died from blood poisoning.
Even as Jesus made his way to touch a dead girl, he came into contact with another threat to his ritual purity. According to Old Testament law, a woman having her monthly menstrual period was unclean for seven days, and anyone who touched her would be unclean “till evening” (Lev. 15:19-33). This woman, with her continual bleeding, would have been considered continually unclean, and was probably a social outcast. She acted boldly to come into close contact with a revered teacher. But she also limited her action, touching the edge of his cloak to minimize the likelihood of making Jesus unclean. In fact, she did not even want Jesus to know she had put him at risk.
This woman was another of the desperate, helpless people cataloged in Matthew 8-9. She was willing to go beyond the bounds of culturally acceptable behavior to draw on help from outside herself.