When the young Dr. Semmelweis showed up for his new job in the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Vienna, he started collecting some data of his own. Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying from puerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever.
Semmelweis hypothesized that there were cadaverous particles, little pieces of corpse, that students were getting on their hands from the cadavers they dissected. And when they delivered the babies, these particles would get inside the women who would develop the disease and die.
He ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments not just with soap but with a chlorine solution. Semmelweis didn’t know anything about germs. He chose the chlorine because he thought it would be the best way to get rid of any smell left behind by those little bits of corpse.
A thing I learned today: The chlorine in your swimming pool traces its origin to the birth of our planet … and there’s a lot of it missing.
Carl Zimmer reports on new research that has measured our Earth’s chlorine content in full. Early Earth was swimming in the stuff, a caustic atmosphere of sour death that would have made life as we know it impossible. But something happened to a great deal of that chlorine, and current levels don’t match the other planets in our neighborhood. It’s just … gone.
Did impacts with meteorites vaporize enough of our oceans that that missing chlorine could escape? Whatever the reason, be thankful that it’s gone. If not, our oceans would be like the Dead Sea, they wouldn’t hold oxygen, and rain would be a rarity.
And an afternoon at the pool would be quite different on that Earth, wouldn’t it?