"It is not every day we get a thesis such as Céline wrote on Semmelweis!"
Henry Miller, The Books in My Life
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) is best known for his early novels Journey to the End of the Night (1932), which Charles Bukowski described as the greatest novel of the last 2,000 years, and Death on the Instalment Plan (1936), but this delirious, fanatical and unreasonable biography predates them both.
Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), now regarded as the father of antisepsis, was the first to diagnose correctly the cause of the staggering mortality rates in the maternity hospital in Vienna; his colleagues, however, rejected both his reasoning and his methods, thereby causing many thousands of unnecessary deaths in maternity wards across Europe. This episode, one of the most infamous in the history of medicine, along with its disastrous effects on Semmelweis himself, is the subject of Céline’s semi-fictional evocation, one in which his violent descriptive genius is already apparent. It is the passionate account of a man persecuted for the simple fact of revealing the truth. The overriding theme of Céline’s later works finds its first expression in this book - a caustic despair, verging on disgust, for humanity as a whole - but it is here tempered by a surprising humanity.
Originally written as a thesis towards his medical doctorate in 1924, Semmelweis was not published until 1936, after the novels which had made him famous. By then Céline was on the verge of actions that were to cause him to undergo, in his own eyes at least, a persecution strikingly similar to that suffered by the hero of this, his first literary work.