The Cry and the Covenant

Author: Morton Thompson
Published: 1949
Website: Wikipedia Page

The Cry and the Covenant is an incredibly beautiful story, with a gripping plotline, a powerfully sympathetic main character, poignant descriptions and a wonderful intertwining with history. It details the fictional story of Ignaz Philipps Semmelweis, born in early 19th century Hungary, whose father pushes him into a career in law, which he hates. He sees a dissection taking place and falls in love with medicine. The rest of the book details his medical career until death, during which he discovers the cause of puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever, which at the time killed thousands of women annually. The cause is dead tissue, which doctors transmit from cadavers to pregnant women because at the time they didn’t wash their hands. Ignaz begins advocating for the use of soap, water and chlorine solution before every delivery. Unfortunately, the medical community rejects the hypothesis despite an incredible amount of proof because of conservatism and stubbornness, and Ignaz is forced to spend his entire life fighting for the truth despite constant setbacks. He never gets to see his idea take on widespread acceptance, but the epilogue informs us that eventually, it became unquestioned truth that cleanliness is of vital importance to the practice of medicine.

That’s a lot of summary, but it’s necessary to be able to say that the book is a story of this man, of disappointment and despair, trial and setback, told in a heartbreakingly poetic way. Ignaz’s childhood is a lovely tale of difficult in school, an enormous amount of love at home, and deeply devoted parents. His friends, through law school, medical school and the whole of his character are loving, committed, supportive and always willing to sacrifice. But they are imperfect. They buy into the system, they are disappointed by failure, they become unnecessarily angry. The wife he meets at the end of the book is the least well-developed character, and even her shallow angelic nature is endearing, exactly what both Ignaz and the reader need.

The book is also, of course, about politics and the nature of science and medicine, which are astoundingly frustrating to the reader, not least because they have not entirely changed. Thomas Kuhn would be the first to tell anyone that there are still conservatives of the old guard, reactionaries who oppose and resist advance and progress. To know something is true and be completely ignored by the arbiters of truth, life and death, must be the most awful thing in the world, and yet some measure of conservatism might be necessary so as to filter through all possible hypotheses. The indignation and rage the reader is made to feel on Ignaz’s behalf are real, and yet they must be tempered with the knowledge that there have been improvements in how we see evidence and science now (with some exceptions).

It is hard to describe this story in its entirety (I have left out the entire subplot of Hungarian revolution and the liberal sprinkling of fascinating historical context), but suffice to say it is well worth reading.

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