Ignaz Semmelweis: Killed by Ignorance


If you check your hands under the microscope, certainly you would be surprised! Our hands contain millions of microbes, most of which are harmless, but some can easily cause colds, flu, diarrhea, and other life-threatening diseases. While doctors remind us, at all times, that we should wash our hands regularly, especially before meals, in return we expect them to do the same before examining us or performing an operation in order to prevent the spread of infection.

Check this to know how doctors clean their hands properly before surgeries:

Surprisingly, until 1847, doctors did not scrub-up or even knew that this simple act could actually save lives. The story begins when Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865), who was the director of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria, noticed that surgeons did not wash their hands before childbirth, surgery, patient examination, or even after dissecting corpses. At the time, mothers’ deaths were attributed to many different and unknown causes, while in fact they died because of the puerperal fever, which was a common cause of female death after childbirth or miscarriage.

Ignaz Semmelweis was the first scientist to use formal data collection and statistics to test a hypothesis. He figured out the problem was a matter of cleanliness, proving that hand-washing could drastically reduce the number of women dying after childbirth, and that exactly was what happened when he ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands and tools regularly, not only with soap, but with a chlorine solution. In fact, that immediately reduced the incidence of fatal puerperal fever from 10% to be 2% approximately; he was called locally the “Savior of the Mothers”.

Unfortunately, Semmelweis could not explain why hands disinfection was so effective because bacteria was not known yet. He was not successful in discussing and spreading the idea among the medical community due to his lack of tactfulness; he publicly criticized people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies. Many doctors were outraged when he accused them of being the cause of their patients’ miserable deaths. Consequently, Semmelweis was largely ignored, rejected, or mocked at; eventually, doctors gave up chlorine hand-washing, and he lost his job.

Semmelweis was outraged by the ignorance of the medical profession, and people started believing that he was losing his mind. Even his wife sent him to a mental institution in 1865, where he died 14 days later, after being severely beaten by guards due to his aggressive behavior.

Semmelweis’ hand wash practice only earned widespread acceptance years after his death, when Louis Pasteur* developed the Germ Theory of Disease, which offered a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’ findings. Ever since, Semmelweis is considered a pioneer of disinfecting procedures.

*A French chemist and microbiologist famous for his discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.



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