Ignaz Semmelweis

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Ignaz Semmelweis : biography

July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865

His father, Josef Semmelweis (1778–1846), was born in Kismarton, then part of Hungary, now Eisenstadt, Austria. Josef achieved permission to set up shop in Buda in 1806 and, in the same year, opened a wholesale business with spices and general consumer goods{{#tag:ref|translated from: Spezereien- und Kolonialwarengroßhandlung|group = "Note"}} named zum Weißen Elefanten (at the White Elephant) in Meindl-Haus in Tabán (today’s 1-3, Apród Street, Semmelweis Museum of Medical History). By 1810, he was a wealthy man when he married Teresia Müller, daughter of the famous coach (vehicle) builder Fülöp Müller.

Ignaz Semmelweis began studying law at the University of Vienna in the autumn of 1837, but by the following year, for reasons that are no longer known, he had switched to medicine. He was awarded his doctorate degree in medicine in 1844. After failing to obtain an appointment in a clinic for internal medicine, Semmelweis decided to specialize in obstetrics. Some of his teachers included Carl von Rokitansky, Josef Skoda and Ferdinand von Hebra.

Efforts to reduce childbed fever

Semmelweis demonstrated that puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever) was contagious and that this incidence could drastically be reduced by appropriate hand washing by medical care-givers. He made this discovery in 1847 while working in the Maternity Department of the Vienna Lying-in Hospital. His failure to convince his fellow doctors led to a tragic conclusion, however, he was ultimately vindicated and cleared of blame. While employed as assistant to the professor of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria in 1847, Semmelweis introduced hand washing with chlorinated lime solutions for interns who had performed autopsies. This immediately reduced the incidence of fatal puerperal fever from about 10 percent (range 5–30 percent) to about 1–2 percent. At the time, diseases were attributed to many different and unrelated causes. Each case was considered unique, just as a human person is unique. Semmelweis’s hypothesis, that there was only one cause, that all that mattered was cleanliness, was extreme at the time, and was largely ignored, rejected or ridiculed. He was dismissed from the hospital for political reasons and harassed by the medical community in Vienna, being eventually forced to move to Budapest.

Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind, and in 1865 he was committed to an asylum. In an ironic twist of fate, he died there of septicaemia only 14 days later, possibly as the result of being severely beaten by guards. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease, offering a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’s findings. He is considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures.

Conflict with established medical opinions

Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time. The theory of diseases was highly influenced by ideas of an imbalance of the basic "four humours" in the body, a theory known as dyscrasia, for which the main treatment was bloodlettings. Medical texts at the time emphasized that each case of disease was unique, the result of a personal imbalance, and the main difficulty of the medical profession was to establish precisely each patient’s unique situation, case by case.

The findings from autopsies of deceased women also showed a confusing multitude of physical signs, which emphasized the belief that puerperal fever was not one, but many different, yet unidentified, diseases. Semmelweis’s main finding — that all instances of puerperal fever could be traced back to only one single cause: lack of cleanliness — was simply unacceptable. His findings also ran against the conventional wisdom that diseases spread in the form of "bad air", also known as miasmas or vaguely as "unfavourable atmospheric-cosmic-terrestrial influences". Semmelweis’s groundbreaking idea was contrary to all established medical understanding.