Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis[

That mothers might live  1938 Film

Another video on Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.  What do you do when you are the only sane man in the room? Or in the entire hospital? Or in the entire world?


Original at Wikepedia

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis[Note 1] (born Semmelweis Ignác Fülöp; 1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865) was a Hungarian physician of German extraction[2][3][4] now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Described as the “savior of mothers”, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal, with mortality at 10%–35%. Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital‘s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards.[5] He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist‘s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success. In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 of pyaemia, after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed.

Semmelweis’ Germ Theory

Semmelweis’ germ theory was introduced when Semmelweis saw a connection between puerperal fever and disinfected hands of the hospital staff.

The common practice of hand washing nowadays was once considered odd during the 19th century. Moreover, the diseases like malaria and typhoid were associated with the contact with water.On the contrary, large number of women died during childbirth due to puerperal sepsis or the childbed fever. Childbed fever was largely caused by the transfer of infection due to the lack of indoor plumbing and hygiene facilities in hospitals. But thanks largely to Philipp Semmelweis who discovered the etiology and prevention of puerperal fever we now understand the importance of handwashing.

Ignaz Semmelweis – The Savior of Mothers

Ignaz Semmelweis introduced handwashing standards after discovering that the occurrence of puerperal fever could be prevented by practicing hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. He believed that microbes causing infection were readily transferred from patients to patients, medical staff to patients and vice versa.

Thus, Semmelweis suggested the use of chlorinated lime solution for handwashing to prevent the infectious disease from spreading. For this successful yet such simple and cost effective method, he is rightfully considered to be the savior of mothers.

His Early Life & Education

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was born on July 1, 1818 in Taban (Budapest) in Hungary. His well-off family was perhaps of German descent and was Jewish. During 1835-1837, he went to Catholic Gymnasium of Buda for his primary education and later finished schooling at the University of Pest. In 1837, he went to Vienna to study law at the University of Vienna but switched to medicine due to personal inclination. He received his master’s (Magister) degree in medicine in 1844 with specialization in midwifery. He learned diagnostic and statistical methods and took surgical training before taking a post as assistant in the Vienna General Hospital.

Semmelweis’ Discovery

During his job at the hospital, Semmelweis closely concerned himself with the study of puerperal fever causing high maternal and neonatal mortality. The Vienna General Hospital operated two maternity clinics – the first clinic and the second clinic for different classes of patients. The treatment was given by the medical students and midwives in the first and the second clinic respectively. He observed that the death rate in the first obstetrical clinic was 13.10%; much higher than the 2.03% death rate in the second clinic. However, there were no explanations for the high contrasting statistics and several mysterious causes were attributed towards the disease.

During a research on the autopsy of his friend who died because of a fatal dissection wound, Semmelweis noticed symptoms similar to those of childbed fever. This observation prompted him to connect cadaveric contamination with puerperal fever. Soon after he declared that medical students carried infectious substances on their hands from dissected cadavers to the laboring mothers. This also provided the logical explanation for a lower death rate in the second clinic, operated by midwives because they were not involved with autopsies or surgery.

Semmelweis and Handwashing

Semmelweis discovered that puerperal sepsis (a type of septicaemia) commonly known as childbed fever in new mothers could be prevented if doctors washed their hands. Based on his analysis, he established a simple but revolutionary prophylaxis system in 1847. He insisted upon the use of chlorinated lime solutions for handwashing by medical students and doctors before they treated obstetrical patients.

The application of his method instantly reduced the cases of fatal puerperal fever from 12.24% to 2.38%, while in some months there were no deaths from childbed fever at all. Besides the hands, he initiated using preventive washing for all instruments making contact with the patients which literally removed puerperal fever from the hospital. This was the beginning of an antiseptic era.

Reaction to Semmelweis’ Discovery

Although hugely successful; Semmelweis’ discovery directly confronted with the beliefs of science and medicine in his time. His colleagues and other medical professionals refused to accept his findings mainly because they did not find it convincing that they could be responsible for spreading infections. The reaction reflected on his job as well when he was declined a reappointment in 1849.

Ignaz Semmelweis was himself reluctant to publish or demonstrate his research and findings publically but some of his students and colleagues wrote letters and delivered lectures explaining his work. But later, he somehow got convinced and during 1850, he delivered a few lectures in Vienna on the Origin of Puerperal Fever. He returned to Budapest in 1851 and joined St. Rochus Hospital remaining there till 1857. His antiseptic methods proved to be fruitful here as well. In 1861, he eventually published a book in German about his significant discovery followed by a series of letters written in reaction to his critics.

His Demise

The continued criticism and lash out finally broke him down. By 1865, he was suffering from depression, forgetfulness and other neural complaints and was eventually committed to an asylum. He only lasted there for two weeks and died on August 13, 1865 at the age of 47.

“When I look back upon the past, I can only dispel the sadness which falls upon me by gazing into that happy future when the infection will be banished . . . The conviction that such a time must inevitably sooner or later arrive will cheer my dying hour.”


Of particular importance in medical history, puerperal fever was one of those diseases that intrigued and baffled doctors in the nineteenth century. You might even remember the famous painting of the illustrious Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes delivering his famed lecture on the subject to the Boston Medical Society in 1843. Just as Dr. Semmelweiss had predicted, the disease was conquered when obstetricians began washing their hands between deliveries. Puerperal fever was eradicated with cleanliness. Likewise, surgical mortality became acceptable when surgeons began washing their hands and using antiseptic techniques as urged by Dr. Joseph Lister. The scientific tenets of bacteriology and microbiology introduced by Louis Pasteur were finally being applied to obstetrics, medicine and surgery.

Florence NightingaleThe engine behind the drive for hospital reform in the mid-nineteenth century was Florence Nightingale (photo, left). After her tremendously successful humanitarian venture at the Scutari Barrack Hospital during the Crimean War, Nightingale was able to convince the world of the necessity of improving hygiene and sanitation as well as having trained professional nurses tending the sick in the hospital wards. According to medical historian Guy Williams, when she arrived at Scutari “there were plenty of rats, lice and fleas, but there were very few knives, forks, or spoons. Miss Nightingale and her nurses, who were allowed just one pint of water per person per day for washing and drinking and for making tea, [yet]…the ladies’ own personal circumstances were hardly hygienic.”(4) With hard work and determination, she turned the situation around and by the time she returned to England, she had become a national heroine.