Ignaz Semmelwies: An Unsung Hero

Poor Ignaz Semmelwies. Maybe you already know his story?

Born in Hungary in 1818, he became a doctor in 1844 and was employed by the Viennese Hospital. This hospital, in order to advance scientific knowledge opened two maternity clinics where, in return for free services including infant care, the patients were used as training subjects.

The first clinic was run by obstetricians and the second by midwives. Part of Dr. Semmelwies' job became examining the patients from both clinics each morning. He became deeply troubled that the first clinic experienced a maternal mortality rate from childbed fever, also known as puerperal fever, more than twice the number of the second clinic and the public soon learned of this discrepancy too. Everyone wanted to be admitted to the second clinic and some would resort to having their baby on the streets pretending to be en route so that they could still qualify for the free infant care. Even the mothers giving birth on the streets were not affected by childbed fever, just that first clinic.

The doctors in the first clinic were performing autopsies, whereas the midwives in the second clinic were not. One day, Semmelweis' good friend was accidentally poked with a scalpel that had been used on a cadaver and soon passed away with a similar pathology to the mothers. Semmelweis recognized the significance of the transfer of unhealthy materials from the corpses to the mothers and immediately implemented handwashing with soap between the autopsy room to the first clinic. The result? A 90% decline in mortality rate that later dropped to be even less than the second clinic.

He began to speak publicly about this amazingly simple, lifesaving discovery which led to dismissal from his position. Unheard and upset, he began speaking publicly which eventually landed him in an insane asylum where he was severely beaten and succumbed to his injuries shortly after.

Years after his death, he was recognized for his contribution when science had finally caught up.