My paper on Semmelweis’s discovery of the cause of childbed fever has appeared in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.
Semmelweis’s discovery has been used by philosophers of science for many decades as a a case study of scientific method. For example, Carl Hempel used Semmelweis as a “simple illustration” of the hypothetico-deductive method in his Philosophy of Natural Science (1966, p. 3). Peter Lipton used it as an extended case study of Inference to the Best Explanation in his book of the same name (1991). Donald Gillies has argued that the episode needs a Kuhnian (in addition to the Hempelian) reconstruction if we are to make sense of it. And this philosophical work on Semmelweis is merely in addition to the work of medical historians, who have long been interested in Semmelweis as a pioneer in the modern study of infectious diseases.
So what more is there to say about Semmelweis’s work? I show in the paper that the philosophical debate has neglected much material that is relevant to Semmelweis’s methods – and if we take this material into consideration, then a reconstruction of his methodology in terms of causal inference and mechanisms suggests itself very strongly.
The argument is partly historical. I show that the passages of Semmelweis’s Etiology of Childbed Fever (published in 1861) which relate to causal inference and mechanisms were omitted from the most widely available English-language edition of the book (K. Codell Carter’s otherwise excellent translation from 1983). This concerns mainly Semmelweis’s numerical tables and the description of his animal experiments.
However, the argument has a philosophical component. In the past decade, causal philosophies of science (for example of the mechanistic or interventionist type) have become prominent. One of the promises of these approaches is an accurate description of much work in biology and the biomedical sciences – but it is up to careful historical scholarship to find out how widely and how straightforwardly these new approaches can be used to make sense of actual science. In this context I find it very promising that one of the classical case studies of confirmation follows, on close inspection, such a clear causal and mechanistic logic.
On a meta-level, my paper raises a question which I think should receive more attention from the HPS community: On what grounds do we prefer one philosophical account of the case to another? After all, it would be a mere finger exercise for a philosopher to take my new historical material and incorporate it into an account of Semmelweis’s work in terms of hypothetico-deductivism, inference to the best explanation or what have you. So while it is clear that philosophers have not taken sufficient account of the historical material, historical scholarship on its own also cannot take us all the way to an understanding of the episode.