200 hundred years ago, Ignaz Semmelweis (01.07.1818.-13.08.1865.) was born. In honor of his memory we thought to write this blog post, commemorating his remarkable life and his colossal discovery that has changed medicine fundamentally.
Based on some statistics and his observations way before his age, he made a discovery that made him one of the most famous Hungarian doctors, also known as “the Savior of Mothers”. He ordered all healthcare professionals to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution before entering the maternity wards - this action significantly decreased the mortality of puerperal (or childbed) fever. Here are some less known facts about his life.
His father, who was a grocer, persuaded him to be a military judge. He did apply for the Faculty of Law at the University of Vienna, where he lived with medical students, and he soon realized that their studies were more relevant to him than law. That’s why in his first year he ended up transferring to the Faculty of Medicine. He earned his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1844 - quite surprising that his dissertation was botanically-themed.
He worked for the Obstetrics Clinic in Vienna General Hospital, where more than 30% of the women who were hospitalized there died from puerperal fever. After the education of medical students and midwives were separated, he noticed that mortality was significantly (3x) higher in the department where medical students were educated. He was wondering why this would happen. He found the final answer when his pathologist friend, Jakob Kolletschka died, after scarring his hand during an autopsy. Semmelweis discovered that his friend’s body was showing similar symptoms as the mothers who died from childbed fever. He instantly realized that it was the doctors themselves who caused childbed fever by not disinfecting their hands between performing autopsies and examining pregnant women in the maternity ward. It became clear to him that this was the explanation for the fact that pregnant women treated exclusively by midwives and midwives-in training were less likely to catch this deadly disease.
He ordered every healthcare professionals to wash their hands for at least 4-5 minutes. His disinfectant of choice, chlorinated lime solution not only kills the pathogens but also dissolves the keratin from the skin, so the hand becomes slippery. It was uncomfortable that’s why his views were very unpopular. His colleagues did not take the results seriously, even though the mortality rate of childbed fever among women treated by doctors fell below that of women cared for by midwives.
At that time, he was seriously criticised and continuously attacked for his actions - that’s why this phenomenon is named after him. Semmelweis-reflex also known as Semmelweis-effect is a metaphor for the automatic tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.
Years before his death, his behavior became quite unusual. Because of the attacks and severe self-accusations after his discovery, his nervous system broke down and he ended up developing mental illness in July 1865. He was admitted to the mental hospital in Döbling, where he died only two weeks later, on August 13. The circumstances of his death are unclear to this day. The following possible reasons emerged that could have caused his death: he had syphilis (which he caught during an autopsy), and developed paralysis progressiva after that, but he might have suffered from brutal abuse by the staff of the mental hospital.
"When I look back upon the past, I can only dispel the sadness which falls upon me by gazing into that happy future when the infection will be banished. But if it is not vouchsafed for me to look upon that happy time with my own eyes … the conviction that such a time must inevitably sooner or later arrive will cheer my dying hour."