Awesome Men Throughout History: Ignaz Semmelweis
You know what’s great? Being right. And the more people think you’re wrong about something, the more satisfying it is when it turns out that you had the right idea all along.
The only time this doesn’t work out is when you’re so far ahead of the curve that society doesn’t catch up with you until after you’re dead, and it’s particularly bittersweet when society shuts you away in an abusive mental hospital towards the end of your lifetime. Sadly, that is precisely what happened to Ignaz Semmelweis, the father of antiseptic procedures, so the least I could do is devote an Awesome Men Throughout History column to him.
Well, actually, the least I could do is absolutely nothing, but those are semantics for another time.
Born in Hungary in 1818, Semmelweis became an obstetrician and landed a position at the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital in 1846. The First Clinic had a pretty bad infant mortality rate thanks to puerperal fever, which was so common at the Clinic that many women in the area preferred giving birth in the street (which, it being the 1840s and all, was comparable to giving birth on a 7-11 restroom floor).
Semmelweis was embarrassed by his clinic’s poor reputation, distressed by the amount of child death he saw, and confused by how much safer street births were than his clinic. He became obsessed with finding an answer, but none of the usual culprits – overcrowding, climate, absence of religious faith (remember, it was the 1840s) – were to blame.
It wasn’t until his friend Jakob Kolletschka’s death in 1847 that Semmelweis figured it out. Kolletschka had died after being poked with a medical student’s scalpel during an autopsy, and Kolletschka’s own autopsy showed a pathology that matched all the women dying from puerperal fever in Semmelweis’ clinic. From there, Semmelweis made the connection; the medical students in his clinic were switching between autopsies and childbirths without washing their hands, thereby transferring “cadaverous particles” to the newborns and killing them.
Keep in mind that germ theory wasn’t a thing yet, so as dumb as “cadaverous particles” sounds to modern ears, it was the best he could do.
Anyway, Semmelweis made everyone in his clinic wash their hands in a chlorine solution between performing autopsies and gynecological examinations, and the infant mortality rate plummeted.
Despite this victory, Semmelweis was slow to publish his findings, or even announce them to the wider scientific community. When some of his students began spreading the word about his groundbreaking work in making med students wash their hands, his peers lashed out at him with a vengeance. Semmelweis, they argued, was backtalking decades of established medical theory, which still held that diseases were caused by miasmas of what doctors called “bad air,” and could only be cured individually. Moreover, he was insulting their social positioning as gentlemen by asserting that their hands could ever be unclean. No, really, that was one of their objections.
Semmelweis, unfortunately, didn’t have enough support to get out from under the dogpile of physicians calling him a crackpot in symposiums all over Europe, and he eventually had to leave his clinic for an unpaid position at a small hospital in what is now Budapest. The stress of ruining his professional reputation wore on him, and his mental health deteriorated (modern historians claim that dementia and/or syphilis had something to do with his breakdown). In 1865, he was lured into an asylum by one of his colleagues and committed there, where he was kept straitjacketed in a dark room, fed castor oil, and beaten so badly by guards when he tried to escape that he died from blood poisoning two weeks after his arrival there.
A shade over twenty years later, Louis Pasteur came up with the germ theory of disease, which led to a gradual embrace of Semmelweis’ theories. Also, the Semmelweis reflex, defined as “a reflexive rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs or paradigms,” is named after him. So now you know the whole story. Now go wash your hands.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.