Ignaz Semmelweis

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Ignaz Semmelweis : biography

July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865

At a conference of German physicians and natural scientists, most of the speakers rejected his doctrine, including the celebrated Rudolf Virchow, who was a scientist of the highest authority of his time. Virchow’s great authority in medical circles contributed potently to the lack of recognition of the Semmelweis doctrine for a long time.

It has been contended that Semmelweis could have had an even greater impact if he had managed to communicate his findings more effectively and avoid antagonising the medical establishment, even given the opposition from entrenched viewpoints.

Legacy

Semmelweis’s advice on chlorine washings was probably more influential than he realized himself. Many doctors, particularly in Germany, appeared quite willing to experiment with the practical hand washing measures that he proposed, but virtually everyone rejected his basic and ground-breaking theoretical innovation—that the disease had only one cause, lack of cleanliness. Professor Gustav Adolf Michaelis from a maternity institution in Kiel replied positively to Semmelweis’s suggestions—eventually he committed suicide, however, because he felt responsible for the death of his own cousin, whom he had examined after she gave birth.

Only belatedly did his observational evidence gain wide acceptance; more than twenty years later, Louis Pasteur’s work offered a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’s observations—the germ theory of disease. As such, the Semmelweis story is often used in university courses with epistemology content, e.g. philosophy of science courses—demonstrating the virtues of empiricism or positivism and providing a historical account of which types of knowledge count as scientific (and thus accepted) knowledge, and which do not. It has been seen as an irony that Semmelweis’s critics considered themselves positivists, but even positivism suffers problems in the face of theories which seem magical or superstitious, such as the idea that "corpse particles" might turn a person into a corpse, with no causal mechanism being stipulated, after a simple contact. They could not accept Semmelweis’ ideas of minuscule and largely invisible amounts of decaying organic matter as a cause of every case of childbed fever— ideas which in the absence of a replicative biological mechanism, must have seemed no more chemically likely than homeopathy. To his contemporaries, Semmelweis seemed to be reverting to the speculative theories of earlier decades that were so repugnant to his positivist contemporaries.

The so-called Semmelweis reflex — a metaphor for a certain type of human behaviour characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs or paradigms — is named after Semmelweis, whose perfectly reasonable hand-washing suggestions were ridiculed and rejected by his contemporaries.

Other legacies of Semmelweis include:

  • Semmelweis is now recognized as a pioneer of antiseptic policy
  • Semmelweis University, a university for medicine and health-related disciplines (located in Budapest, Hungary), is named after Semmelweis; and
  • The Semmelweis Orvostörténeti Múzeum (Semmelweis Medical History Museum) is located in the former home of Semmelweis
  • The Semmelweis Klinik, a hospital for women located in Vienna, Austria
  • The Semmelweis Hospital in Miskolc, Hungary
  • In 2008 Semmelweis was selected as the motif for an Austrian commemorative coin.

Film

  • That Mothers Might Live, U.S.A. 1938: MGM (Director Fred Zinnemann) Oscar for the best short film
  • Semmelweis, Hungary 1940: Mester Film (Director André De Toth)
  • Semmelweis – Retter der Mütter, GDR 1950: DEFA (Director Georg C. Klaren)
  • Ignaz Semmelweis – Arzt der Frauen, Western-Germany/Austria 1987: ZDF/ORF (Director Michael Verhoeven)
  • Semmelweis, the Netherlands 1994: Humanistische Omroep Stichting (Director Floor Maas)
  • Docteur Semmelweis, France/Poland 1995 (Director Roger Andrieux)
  • Semmelweis (shortfilm), U.S.A./Austria 2001: Belvedere Film (Director Jim Berry)
  • 12 Monkeys, U.S.A. 1995: (Director Terry Gilliam). A mental patient refers to Semmelweis as example of a sane person unfairly categorized as crazy by his contemporaries, after describing how a waiter dropped his food on the floor in the restaurant and said it was fine because he denied the germ theory of disease.