This post is the fourth in a series on Drug Resistant Superbugs.
Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis is widely recognized as the first person to realize that hand-washing can prevent infections. Now known as the “saviour of mothers” he should also be known as the Patron Saint of Hand-Washing. Semmelweis’ life illustrates how Science can be misleading.
In 1846, the death rate of women in childbirth at the Viennese General Hospital became uncontrollably high. The women were dying of puerperal fever. People related the cause of the fever to everything and anything one could imagine, from the weather to the stages of labour. Amidst the confusion, the epidemic was named “childbed fever”.
Semmelweiss was increasingly concerned by what he saw and his sense of observation sharpened. He noted that the death rate was more prevalent in one of the two maternity clinics and that two different groups of medical staff attended the clinics.Medical students visited the clinic where most women were dying; midwives ran the other one. Though hand-washing wasn’t a standard hygienic practice at the time, Semmelweis was distraught when he saw medical students perform autopsies and proceed to the maternity clinic with unwashed hands.
It wasn’t until after the death of Jakob Kolletschka, a professor of Forensic Medicine, that the cause of death among the women became clear to Semmelweis. Kolletschka cut his finger with a knife while performing an autopsy and died of similar symptoms to that of childbed fever. He concluded that the symptoms of Kolletschka’s disease were the same as those of the infants and mothers who died in the maternity clinic.Though the “germ theory” of disease was not proposed until 1866, Semmelweis insisted that all medical staff wash their hands with chlorine solution prior to performing pelvic examinations. He claimed that “cadaverous particles” had contaminated Kolletschka’s wound and that cadaverous particles on the unwashed hands of medical students were the cause of childbed fever.
The medical students were outraged by the hand-washing protocol. Nevertheless, hand-washing led to a rapid decline in mortality rates in both maternity clinics. Despite his life saving discovery and publications, Semmelweis’ theory was viewed as unscientific and was boldly rejected by the medical establishment.
Several years after his publication, The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever, Semmelweis suffered a breakdown and was confined to a mental asylum, where he was beaten by guards. He died at age 47 of septicaemia, a bloostream infection. Sadly, Semmelweis’ doctrine earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur established the germ theory and Joseph Lister proved the importance of hygienic methods and antisepsis. Over the years, Lister gives Semmelweis his full due and says, “Without Semmelweis, my achievements would be nothing”.