Ignaz Semmelweis


Ignaz Semmelweis : biography

July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865


  • is the classic reference, in Latin print, not the original Gothic print.
  • Louis-Ferdinand Céline completed his Ph. D. thesis on Semmelweis in 1924. It was published as a fictionalized biography under the title La Vie et l’œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis in 1936 (English: The Life and Work of Semmelweis, tr. by Robert Allerton Parker, Boston : Little, Brown and Company, 1937/The Life and Work of Semmelweiss: A Fictional Biography, tr. by John Harman, Atlas Press, 2008).
  • Morton Thompson’s 1949 novel The Cry and the Covenant is a fictionalized account based on the life of Semmelweiss.

Drama / Plays

  • "Semmelweis" by Howard Sackler. Performed in 1977 at Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo, NY with Lewis J. Stadlen, Kathy Bates, and Kim Hunter. Performed in 1978 at Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. with Colin Blakeley. Performed in 1981 at Hartman Theater in Stamford, CT.
  • "What are you fighting for, Dr Semmelweis" by Titus Alexander, 1973. Performed July 1974 at Churchill Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland, by pupils of the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School Dramatic Society, with Simon Scott as Semmelweis with music composed by Mark Edwards. Translated into German as "Um was kaempfen Sie, Dr. Semmeelweis?" by Concilia Viegener and performed by a Steiner school in Brazil.

Breakdown, death and oblivion

Beginning in 1861, Semmelweis suffered from various nervous complaints. He suffered from severe depression and became excessively absentminded. Paintings from 1857 to 1864 show a progression of aging. He turned every conversation to the topic of childbed fever.

After a number of unfavorable foreign reviews of his 1861 book, Semmelweis lashed out against his critics in a series of Open Letters. They were addressed to various prominent European obstetricians, including Späth, Scanzoni, Siebold, and to "all obstetricians". They were full of bitterness, desperation, and fury and were "highly polemical and superlatively offensive" at times denouncing his critics as irresponsible murderers or ignoramuses. He also called upon Siebold to arrange a meeting of German obstetricians somewhere in Germany to provide a forum for discussions on puerperal fever where he would stay "until all have been converted to his theory."

In mid-1865, his public behaviour became irritating and embarrassing to his associates. He also began to drink immoderately; he spent progressively more time away from his family, sometimes in the company of a prostitute; and his wife noticed changes in his sexual behavior. On July 13, 1865 the Semmelweis family visited friends, and during the visit Semmelweis’s behavior seemed particularly inappropriate.

The exact nature of Semmelweis’s affliction has been a subject of some debate. According to K Codell Carter, in his biography of Semmelweis, the exact nature of his affliction cannot be determined. “It is impossible to appraise the nature of Semmelweis’s disorder. It may have been learned helplessness, which is known to cause chronic and severe depression. It may have been Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, which is associated with rapid cognitive decline and mood changes. It may have been third stage syphilis, a then-common disease of obstetricians who examined thousands of women at gratis institutions, or it may have been emotional exhaustion from overwork and stress.”

Investigative reporter Michael Volpe argued that Semmelweis was suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and this is what caused the erratic, confrontational, and repellant behavior that Semmelweis exhibited, especially toward the end of his life. Volpe argued that the original source of Semmelweis’s trauma could have been linked to a number of deaths including: all the women that were dying at the First Obstetricianal clinic at Vienna General Hospital in 1846, his son Jakob Kolletschka, who died at childbirth, and his colleague Gustav Adolph Michaelis, who killed himself because he blamed himself for a death from childbed fever. That trauma was repeated through Semmelweis’s many professional losses until he broke down. Semmelweis’s drinking and visiting a prostitute would have been two examples of avoidance behavior, standard in sufferers of PTSD.

In 1865 János Balassa wrote a document referring Semmelweis to a mental institution. On July 30 Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra lured him, under the pretense of visiting one of Hebra’s "new Institutes", to a Viennese insane asylum located in Lazarettgasse (Landes-Irren-Anstalt in der Lazarettgasse). Semmelweis surmised what was happening and tried to leave. He was severely beaten by several guards, secured in a straitjacket and confined to a darkened cell. Apart from the straitjacket, treatments at the mental institution included dousing with cold water and administering castor oil, a laxative. He died after two weeks, on August 13, 1865, aged 47, from a gangrenous wound, possibly caused by the beating. The autopsy revealed extensive internal injuries, the cause of death pyemia—blood poisoning.

Semmelweis was buried in Vienna on August 15, 1865. Only a few people attended the service. Brief announcements of his death appeared in a few medical periodicals in Vienna and Budapest. Although the rules of the Hungarian Association of Physicians and Natural Scientists specified that a commemorative address be delivered in honor of a member who had died in the preceding year, there was no address for Semmelweis; his death was never even mentioned.

János Diescher was appointed Semmelweis’s successor at the Pest University maternity clinic. Immediately mortality rates jumped sixfold to six percent. But the physicians of Budapest said nothing; there were no inquiries and no protests. Almost no one — either in Vienna or in Budapest — seems to have been willing to acknowledge Semmelweis’s life and work.

His remains were transferred to Budapest in 1891. On October 11, 1964 they were transferred once more to the house in which he was born. The house is now a historical museum and library, honoring Ignaz Semmelweis.