As this example suggests, because of the body’s amazing ability to heal itself, even when doctors used heroic medicine, many of their patients survived. Thus, doctors could convince themselves they had cured their patients when in reality they either had made no difference or had endangered their patients’ lives.
By the second half of the 19th century, the public’s support for irregular practitioners and fear of heroic medicine had led most doctors to abandon their most dangerous techniques. Yet medical treatment remained risky. Allopathic doctors’ major advantage over their competitors was their ability to conduct surgery in life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, until the development of anesthesia in the 1860s, many patients died from the inherent physical trauma of surgery. In addition, many died unnecessarily from postsurgical infections. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis had demonstrated in the 1850s that because midwives (whose tasks included washing floors and linens) had relatively clean hands, whereas doctors routinely went from autopsies to obstetrical examinations and from patient to patient without washing their hands, more childbearing women died on medical wards than on midwifery wards. Yet not until the 1880s would hand washing became standard medical practice.