Ignaz Semmelweis

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Ignaz Semmelweis : biography

July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865

As a result, his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Other more subtle factors may also have played a role. Some doctors, for instance, were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands, feeling that their social status as gentlemen was inconsistent with the idea that their hands could be unclean.

Specifically, Semmelweis’s claims were thought to lack scientific basis, since he could offer no acceptable explanation for his findings. Such a scientific explanation was made possible only some decades later, when the germ theory of disease was developed by Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and others.

During 1848, Semmelweis widened the scope of his washing protocol, to include all instruments coming in contact with patients in labour, and used mortality rates time series to document his success in virtually eliminating puerperal fever from the hospital ward.

Hesitant publication of results and first signs of trouble

Toward the end of 1847, accounts of Semmelweis’s work began to spread around Europe. Semmelweis and his students wrote letters to the directors of several prominent maternity clinics describing their recent observations. Ferdinand von Hebra, the editor of a leading Austrian medical journal, announced Semmelweis’s discovery in the December 1847 and April 1848 issues of the medical journal. Hebra claimed that Semmelweis’s work had a practical significance comparable to that of Edward Jenner’s introduction of cowpox inoculations to prevent smallpox.

In late 1848, one of Semmelweis’s former students wrote a lecture explaining Semmelweis’s work. The lecture was presented before the Royal Medical and Surgical Society in London and a review published in The Lancet, a prominent medical journal. A few months later, another of Semmelweis’s former students published a similar essay in a French periodical.

As accounts of the dramatic reduction in mortality rates in Vienna were being circulated throughout Europe, Semmelweis had reason to expect that the chlorine washings would be widely adopted, saving tens of thousands of lives. Early responses to his work also gave clear signs of coming trouble, however. Some physicians had clearly misinterpreted his claims. James Young Simpson, for instance, saw no difference between Semmelweis’s groundbreaking findings and the British idea suggested by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1843 that childbed fever was contagious (i.e. that infected persons could pass the infection to others). Indeed, initial responses to Semmelweis’s findings were that he had said nothing new.

In fact, Semmelweis was warning against all decaying organic matter, not just against a specific contagion that originated from victims of childbed fever themselves. This misunderstanding, and others like it, occurred partly because Semmelweis’s work was known only through secondhand reports written by his colleagues and students. At this crucial stage, Semmelweis himself had published nothing. These and similar misinterpretations would continue to cloud discussions of his work throughout the century.

Some accounts emphasize that Semmelweis refused to communicate his method officially to the learned circles of Vienna, nor was he eager to explain it on paper.

Political turmoil and dismissal from the Vienna hospital

In 1848 a series of tumultuous revolutions swept across Europe. The resulting political turmoil would affect Semmelweis’s career. In Vienna on March 13, 1848, students demonstrated in favor of increased civil rights, including trial by jury and freedom of expression. The demonstrations were led by medical students and young faculty members and were joined by workers from the suburbs. Two days later in Hungary, demonstrations and uprisings led to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and a full-scale war against the ruling Habsburgs of the Austrian Empire. In Vienna, the March demonstration was followed by months of general unrest.

There is no evidence that Semmelweis was personally involved in the events of 1848. It is known that some of his brothers were punished for active participation in the Hungarian independence movement, and it seems likely that the Hungarian-born Semmelweis was sympathetic to the cause. Semmelweis’s superior, professor Johann Klein, was a conservative Austrian, likely uneasy with the independence movements and alarmed by the other revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas. It seems likely that Klein mistrusted Semmelweis.