Ignaz Semmelweis just may be one of the smartest guys you never knew existed. A Hungarian medical doctor in the mid-19th century, he was the first known advocate of hand washing among doctors and was subsequently shunned by the entire medical community because of it.
The story begins in 1847 when Semmelweis became head of the maternity ward at the Allgemeine Krankenhaus — the largest hospital in Vienna, Austria. At the time, one in six women at the hospital died after childbirth of what was known as “puerile,” or “childbed fever.” The symptoms were always the same — the new mother developed chills and a fever, her abdomen would become agonizingly painful and bloated, and within a few short days she’d be dead, leaving the child motherless.
The women’s autopsies were also always the same. Doctors and medical students alike knew that when they opened the body, they would be met with a stench so strong it caused many new students to vomit on the spot. They would then observe the swollen and inflamed uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes, and pools of puss all throughout the abdominal cavity. Simply put, the women’s insides had been ravaged.
Explanations for the common and horrific deaths ranged from birthing fluid getting “backed up” in the birthing canal due “cold air getting into the vagina,” all the way to the belief that the mother’s breast milk had become rerouted away from the breast and spoiled inside the body (which is what many physicians believed the puss to have been). Others believed it was caused by noxious particles in the air, and others just thought it had to do with the natural constitution of the mothers — some women would get the fever, and others simply wouldn’t, and there wasn’t much any doctor could do about it.
This is where Semmelweis came in. As the head of both of the hospitals’ two maternity wards — one in which only midwives delivered babies, and one in which doctors and medical students worked— he noticed that the death rate from childbed fever was ten times higher in the latter. Could there be a connection, he wondered, between the doctors and medical students (who often went straight from cadaver dissection to the maternity ward) and the horrific deaths of these women?
After studying the fever rates from both wards, as well as in the population at large, Semmelweis was certain of one thing: the rate of death from childbed fever in the doctor-run hospital ward was not only significantly higher than the other maternity ward run by midwives, but higher than the average for the entire city of Vienna, including home births and unassisted beggar women. It was literally safer to have your child alone in an alleyway than to have it delivered by one of the most well trained doctors in the country.
And this is when it hit him: perhaps something was being transmitted from the autopsied corpses to the women giving birth. Often times a medical student would dissect a woman who had died of childbed fever, and — with his same, unwashed hands — report to the maternity ward minutes later to deliver babies. Semmelweis speculated that potentially deadly particles were transferred from one location to another on the very hands of the doctors and medical students there to deliver life. This was, in essence, germ theory almost twenty years before it was popularized by the famous Louis Pasteur.
Semmelweis subsequently forced all of the doctors and students on his staff to sanitize their hands with chlorine and lime before entering the maternity ward, and the death rate of childbed fever was reduced to 1.2 percent within a year—almost exactly equal to the ward run by midwives.
However, even with extremely compelling practical evidence, the medical community writ large widely disregarded Semmelweis’ theory, most completely unwillingly to entertain the idea that they could be hurting their own patients. When sending the results of his study to a prominent scientific journal in Vienna, the editor added the disclaimer:
We thought the theory of chlorine disinfection had died out long ago […] It would be well that our readers should not allow themselves to be misled by this theory at the present time.
The scientific community simply would not take Semmelweis seriously as his findings flew in the face of the current medical doctrines, and he soon began to lose the respect of colleagues and superiors alike. His career never recovered, and he eventually began to show signs of mental illness. He was admitted into an asylum in 1865, where he was beaten to death by guards. Although he is now regarded as a pioneer of germ theory, he never lived to see his life’s work validated in the slightest.
He has also since been the basis for the term the “Semmelweis reflex,” which describes the human tendency to reject or ignore new evidence that contradicts established norms or beliefs.
And thus concludes the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, today’s Sad Genius.