Disease viewed as a loss of balance

The "humoral theory" of disease, which originated with Hippocrates (who lived from about 460 to about 370 B.C.) and lasted until the early 20th century, held that a balance had to be maintained among four humors or liquid substances in the human body. If that balance got out of whack, the thinking was, people got sick.

The four humors were black bile, red or yellow bile, blood and phlegm. The ancients believed that these substances ruled our personalities as well as our bodies. They divided all the possible character types into these four — melancholic, choleric, sanguine and phlegmatic — depending on which substance dominated that particular person.

Treatments for disease were designed to restore the balance among the humors, but what worked for one person might not work for another, which helped let practitioners off the hook if a "cure" didn't work. Purges like enemas and emetics were popular, and physicians often advised changes to a patient's diet or routine. Blood-letting was an especially durable cure for just about anything.

During labor, for example, "some women were bled to unconsciousness to counter delivery pains" or any other complications large or small, according to Peter Conrad's The Sociology of Health and Illness.

The acceptance of the germ theory finally put an end to humoral theory in mainstream medical thought.

Childbed fever

"There is not a corner in Britain where this formidable disease has not made many mourners,”  John Mackintosh, an Edinburgh, Scotland "man-midwife" wrote of puerperal or "childbed" fever in the 1820s.

This bacterial disease of the upper genital tract typically began within the first three days after childbirth with abdominal pain, fever and respiratory difficulty, and very often ended with the new mother's death.

Medical writers had been remarking on childbed fever at least since Hippocrates, but in the early modern era, it began to attract attention for a number of reasons. For one, it began to appear in epidemics, with very high mortality rates. For another, accounts of outbreaks were written about and published. And at least some of the new, scientific man-midwives themselves were spreading the disease by going straight from autopsies to the birth chambers of homes and especially of hospitals, without cleaning up at all in between.

There were terrible epidemics of puerperal fever in the German city of Leipzig  in 1652 and 1665, at the Hôtel Dieu in Paris, France, in 1745 and 1746, and at the British Lying-In Hospital in London, England, in 1760. It is possible that these were the first ever epidemics of childbed fever.