4 out of 4 stars
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In 1837, Ignác Semmelweis was a nineteen-year-old Hungarian law school student who was thrilled to be selected to study in Vienna. Walking home from classes while deep in thought one evening, Semmelweis happened upon a young woman in labor. When he offered to take her to the hospital, she became hysterical and told him she did not want to go. “Mothers are murdered in the hospital!” she exclaimed. He put down his law tome and, without having had any prior experience, helped the woman deliver a healthy baby boy. Shortly after this serendipitous encounter, Semmelweis changed his field of study to medicine. His lifelong quest was to eradicate the very thing his first patient feared: puerperal fever, a mysterious illness common in hospital maternity wards. Also known as “childbed fever,” this painful disease spread quickly among patients, killing previously healthy mothers and their newborn babies within days.
Unclean Hands by Andrew Schafer is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Ignác Semmelweis. It charts the highs and lows of his personal and professional achievements, highlighting the political climate in Austria and Hungary during the mid-1800s. Schafer is a Hungarian doctor himself, and he carefully researched the life of his fellow physician. There was very little fiction in this novel; the author included endnotes throughout the book to provide additional details around actual events. The endnotes also identified fictitious characters and circumstances, which were primarily introduced to convey factual information within the flow of the story. These well-written references added historical context without disrupting the reading experience.
My favorite part of this book was getting to know Semmelweis. The author described every aspect of this physician well. I witnessed not only his passion and brilliance in the medical field but also his passion for life—particularly involving ladies and dancing. Throughout the story, I celebrated his achievements and mourned his setbacks. The writing flowed easily, and this made it effortless to navigate the complex setting. A key component of the story was the stifling political influence on the medical community, which became more prevalent with the Hungarian revolution in 1848 and the increased xenophobia and oppression in its wake. My connection to Semmelweis and my desire for his success made learning about the historical events easier because I wanted to know everything about him.
The only negative I found in the book was the number of names involved. There were so many prominent professors, doctors, and scientists mentioned that I couldn’t tell which ones I needed to remember. As the political climate became tenser, another nuance was whether these associates were allies or enemies. Semmelweis’ health began to falter, and I was unsure if a person was really an adversary or if his paranoia had gotten the best of him. I kept a list of the characters and their positions and added a loyalty attribute; using a pencil will come in handy for those who like to keep their lists on paper.
I rate Unclean Hands 4 out of 4 stars. It is engaging and meticulously edited. There are many characters to navigate throughout the story, but this reinforces the broad influence of Ignác Semmelweis’ life. I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy memoirs, character-driven historical novels, and plots containing medical and scientific research. There is a bit of profanity (Semmelweis swears in English and Hungarian), but it is limited to a few verbal outbursts. Whether you are familiar with the triumphant and tragic life of this outstanding scientist and physician or encountering him for the first time, you will surely enjoy this gripping read.
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