semmelweis ignác

One of the most important figures of Hungarian medical history, Ignácz Semmelweis, was born 100 years ago, on 1 July 1818. On this occasion, the government has declared 2018 to be his memorial year, as reports. Learn about the doctor who is commonly referred to as the “saviour of the mothers” in Hungary, as he discovered the cause behind a raging childbed fever epidemic that was taking the lives of mothers in Vienna in the 19th century: the lack of hand disinfection. In other words, he realised the importance of washing hands before the existence of bacteria was discovered, years after his death.

At the beginning of the 19th century, there was an alarming trend in Viennese public hospitals that cared for pregnant women. In the ward where midwives assisted at births, only 4-5% of women died in puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever) after giving birth. In the second ward, where medical student were put in charge, this rate was 9-10%. No one seemed to find any explanation to this difference in death rates, and no one really cared.

But then a young Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis came to Vienna, who changed everything.

While completing his medical studies in Buda and Vienna, he regularly visited the anatomy department and performed several autopsies. He gained degrees in obstetrics and general medicine and later became a surgical doctor. When one of his colleagues cut his finger while doing a post-mortem, and subsequently died of blood poisoning (which was an unrecognised condition at the time), he started researching into the possible causes of his friend’s death. He soon realised that his colleague had died due to insufficient hand disinfection.

But his discovery that deathly germs are transferred from the autopsy table to the bed of pregnant women was met with incredulity and contempt within the medical community in Vienna. As president János Áder reminded at the opening event of the memorial year,

“In the wards where Semmelweis worked, post-partum death rate was reduced to below 1%.

All this thanks to a simple act of washing the hands with chlorinated lime solution. This may seem like a banal procedure today, but at Semmelweis’s time it was considered unnecessary and useless. Everything we know today about the importance of sterilization started with Semmelweis.”

A relief commemorating the “savior of mothers”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Pataki Márta

Semmelweis could not prove his theory with scientific evidence, all he had was his observations and experience, which were rejected by his conservative colleagues. It was ten years later that Louis Pasteur presented about bacteria at a conference, which substantiated Semmelweis’s claims.

Semmelweis had tragic final days. Unable to cope with the professional hostility, he started acting in psychotic and irrational ways. Finally, he was committed to an asylum in Döblingen (the same one where another famous Hungarian, István Széchenyi spent his last months). In response to his aggressive behavior, he was abused and beaten by guards. With no doctor to attend to his wounds, in a tragically ironic turn of events, he died of blood poisoning.

Today, his memory is honoured by the name of the major institution of medical education in Hungary, Semmelweis University.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons / Doby Jenő


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