The controversy over Semmelweis’ <em>Lehre</em>: a case-study in the sociol- ogy of scientific controversies

  • Antonio Piccolomini d’Aragona Aix-Marseille Univ, CNRS, Centre Granger, Aix-en-Provence, France
Keywords: controversy, Semmelweis, puerperal fever, negative feedback, error


The paper aims at reconstructing the controversy over Semmelweis’ theory on the aetiology and prophylaxis of childbed fever. We also highlight some sociological and epistemological aspects of this controversy. From a sociological point of view, the controversy shows a negative feedback phenomenon: because of how the context of the controversy is made, actions performed by agents belonging to one and the same pole may have the unwanted effect of weakening the pole itself. As concerns the epistemological level, we consider three “errors” that some authors ascribe to Semmelweis, and argue that their evaluation is not independent from the theoretical context underlying the evaluation. Finally, we link the results of our analysis with some theories in the sociology of scientific controversies.