Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was born in Hungary in 1818, when it was part of the Austrian Empire. He received a doctor’s degree in 1844 and began work in a maternity clinic. Semmelweis soon noticed that of all the mothers who delivered their babies in the hospital, about 20-30 percent died of something called puerperal fever. Nobody knew exactly why this was, although some people thought it was due to things such as not enough air or over crowding. Semmelweis didn’t believe those reasons, and tried to find the real cause, despite opposition from his boss.
Semmelweis noticed that the death rate of mothers was higher in the wards where they were treated by medical students who had come straight from the dissecting room. He decided that students who had just been dissecting mothers who had died from the disease transferred the disease to healthy mothers.
Semmelweis made all the medical students wash their hands between patients, despite the disagreement of his superior, who did not believe hand-washing had any effect.
The mortality rate of mothers dropped from about 18% to 1%. There were even months when no women died! Younger people noticed and agreed with what Semmelweis had discovered – but Semmelweis’s boss still didn’t.
Semmelweis was dropped from his job in 1849 and failed to find any other until the following year, when he started work at a hospital in Pest. Again, due to his hand-washing practices, death rates dropped to less than 1% in his hospital, but remained as high as 15% elsewhere. Semmelweis’s ideas were recognised in Hungary, but not in Vienna, where he was ridiculed. He published a book explaining his ideas in 1861 and sent it to other countries. His discoveries were not accepted.
Semmelweis had a breakdown in 1865. He was taken to a mental hospital, where he died. It is thought that, sadly, he died from a cut on his hand infected with the disease he had tried so hard to reduce.
After Semmelweis’s death his ideas were accepted by medical science. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon, invented antiseptic procedures based on many of Semmelweis’s ideas. Cleanliness is now required in modern hospitals.
Semmelweis had many heroic qualities. One was persistence. He kept on doing what was right, getting the medical students to wash their hands, despite being publicly scorned and opposed. He stuck strongly to his beliefs, although it lost him his reputation and various jobs. It would have been easy for him to have given up and agreed with everyone else that his ideas were stupid. Instead he carried on and successfully saved thousands of lives.