The Madness of Dr. Semmelweis
From ancient times up to the mid 19th century there were two prevailing theories as to what caused illness. One originated from the Ancient Greek belief in humors (body fluids) and that an imbalance of humors resulted in illness. Another was that illness was caused by breathing miasma, or “bad air”. In 1847 both ideas were commonly held as unquestioned fact among the medical community. However during that year a well respected physician named Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis would challenge those ideas by coming up with a radical, nay, preposterous idea of his own. One that was so preposterous it could only have come from the mind of a lunatic.
In 1847 Dr. Semmelweis was a professor at Vienna General Hospital and director of the maternity ward. At the time an affliction known as “puerperal fever” claimed the lives of around 10-35 percent of the women who gave birth. Semmelweis set out to determine the reason why so many women died of this mysterious yet deadly illness, especially in his ward, which was seeing a terrible increase in the affliction. After examining the ward and the actions of the physicians under his charge, Semmelweis noted something quite interesting. Ironically, next to the maternity ward was the morgue. It was quite common for physicians to conduct autopsies or anatomical studies in the morgue, then assist in childbirth in the maternity ward. Semmelweis theorized that the physicians may be physically spreading a contaminant from the cadavers to the women giving childbirth. He did not know exactly what the contaminant was, but he was certain that this was the origin of the illness To test his theory, Semmelweis ordered all physicians under his charge to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated water before performing any procedure. As a result of this intervention, death rates from puerperal fever in his hospital dropped from 10%-35% to less than 1%.
Semmelweis was so overjoyed at the results he enthusiastically published his findings in a book called Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. Semmelweis believed that his findings would revolutionize the way medical professionals around the world conceptualized illness and practiced medicine. However, he immediately hit a wall when the medical community reviewed his results. Many found his ideas bizarre and laughable, others accused him of outright quackery and fraud. His ideas on hygiene and sanitation were quickly rejected by the medical and scientific community. Indeed there was never something so controversial and ludicrous as Semmelweis’ theory that handwashing can prevent disease. Under pressure from the criticism leveled at Semmelweis, the Vienna General Hospital refused to renew his term of service in 1849. Essentially he was fired.
After continuing harassment by the Austrian medical community, Semmelweis left Austria for Hungary. After his dismissal death rates from puerperal fever returned to their old levels. Dr. Semmelweis was made head of obstetrics at St. Rochus Hospital in Pest, where once again his methods lowered death rates to less than 1%. Once again his methods were ridiculed and rejected. Then he became head of obstetrics at the University of Pest, once again, despite great successes he faced an insurmountable wall of criticism and derision.
Semmelweis spent the next decade publishing his theories and shouting to the heavens for anyone who would listen. Over time his passionate beliefs gave him a reputation as fringe theorist, a lunatic, a man one one nut short of a fruitcake. For the medical community of the time, the idea of “handwashing” was radical, unscientific, and even offensive. After years of harsh criticism and rejection, Semmelweis’ mental state eventually did slip. He sank into a deep depression and became an alcoholic. He became very reclusive, saying little and when he did converse only talking about his theories. In his moment of weakness Semmelweis’ staunchest critics used the opportunity to attack. In 1865 he was involuntarily committed to an insane asylum. After suffering a beating at the hands of the orderlies, he sustained a cut on his leg. In a cruel irony, the cut became septic after being treated by a doctor with filthy hands who sewed the wound shut with a filthy needle. His protests of handwashing and cleanliness went unheeded as the ravings of a lunatic. He died two weeks later.
A mere decade later the work of two scientists, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch ultimately proved that Semmelweis was right. Even more they discovered that the cause of most disease was from microscopic organisms called bacteria. It was found that puerperal fever was directly caused by one species of bacteria called streptococcus pyogenes. Today handwashing is a staple of modern medical asepsis. In fact it is a staple other industries as well, such as childcare, food service, and many more. It is also a sacred rule that you wash your hands after using the restroom, and before meals. More and more common one finds anti-bacterial foams and gels in special containers all over public places such as hospitals, malls, and schools. Today one who would advocate against handwashing would be considered a lunatic.
Great message in cleanliness.