Famous Faces: Ignaz Semmelweis

     It seems like common sense nowadays to wash our hands; after the toilet, before and after eating, after blowing our noses, and especially all throughout the day when you are in the medical field. The “5 Moments of Hand Hygiene” is drilled into us from the first day, and the little pink tubs of chlorhexidine are present every few metres no matter where you go on the wards. It seems preposterous that anyone would refute the importance of hand hygiene, but this was the case in the time of Ignaz Semmelweis, the obstetrician who has been deemed the ‘saviour of mothers’ and as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures.

     Semmelweis was born on the 1st of July, 1818, in a suburb of Buda (now a part of Budapest), Hungary. Not much is known about his early life, but in 1937 he did attend the University of Vienna to study law and, after dropping this one year later, medicine, where he received his Doctorate in Medicine in 1844. After missing out on becoming an internalist he decided to move to Obstetrics, where he first noticed a huge difference in mortality between the clinic run by the medical students and the clinic run by the midwives. Patients would often beg to go to the midwives’ clinic, where the mortality rates were 90% lower, and sometimes even gave birth in the streets to avoid going to see the training doctors.

     Semmelweis observed the differences between the clinics, and after the death of his friend Jakob Kolletschka from a similar pathology to his patients (due to a scalpel injury at the hands of a medical student during a post-mortem) he decided to try an experiment; after the dissection lessons, the students would be required to wash their hands in calcium hypochlorite (chlorinated lime water) before seeing their obstetric patients. This resulted in a huge reduction in the mortality rates amongst the patients, with Semmelweis concluding that some ‘cadaverous particles’ must be the cause of the puerperal fever that was killing the patients.

     This discovery was huge, but unfortunately, in 1847, was approximately 30 years too early. He was forced to leave the hospital, and left for Budapest in 1850 to further his research. The clinic which he was appointed to saw a significant reduction in disease; so much so that between 1851-1855 only 8 patients died of puerperal fever (0.85%). This, however, did not interest the powers at be, and he was once again disgraced by some of the most prominent medical minds of his time (including Virchow, who will be the face of a future article!).

     Ignaz Semmelweis was sent to an asylum in 1865, after many years of displaying erratic and bizarre behaviour, the cause of which cannot be determined (either of third-stage syphilis, Alzheimer’s disease, or emotional exhaustion) . He was beaten, admitted to the asylum, and died twelve days later due to his injuries. It is estimated that, if he had explained his ideas in a more coherent and reliable way, that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved in Vienna alone. But, even though his work was not recognised, it lead the way for Pasteur, Koch, and many other scientists to found the golden era of bacteriology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Without his sacrifice, his medical prowess, and above all his research, countless lives every day would be lost, and one of the most fundamental skills taught to all young medical students (nay, all people) would have been lost.


References:

  1. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis | German-Hungarian physician [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2016 [cited 15 August 2016]. Available from: https://global.britannica.com/biography/Ignaz-Philipp-Semmelweis
  2. Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-65) [Internet]. Sciencemuseum.org.uk. 2016 [cited 15 August 2016]. Available from: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/ignazsemmelweis
  3. The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing And Briefly Saved Lives [Internet]. NPR.org. 2015 [cited 15 August 2016]. Available from: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/12/375663920/the-doctor-who-championed-hand-washing-and-saved-women-s-lives
  1. The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing And Briefly Saved Lives [Internet]. NPR.org. 2015 [cited 15 August 2016]. Available from: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/12/375663920/the-doctor-who-championed-hand-washing-and-saved-women-s-lives
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