Hungarian Doctor Saved Millions of Women’s Lives. But His Colleagues Ridiculed and Rejected Him
Some researchers think that technological progress is so rapid that we won’t be able to keep up with it soon. But in the past, the situation was different: many scientific discoveries faced a wall of misunderstanding and even hostility. This is what happened to Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures.
Bright Side respects this selfless man whose discovery saved millions of women’s lives, but was dismissed by his colleagues.
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was born in 1818 in Buda, which is the western part of modern day Budapest. After school, he entered the college of law at the University of Vienna, but a year later, he decided to devote his life to medicine.
In 1846, 2 years after getting his diploma, Semmelweis started working at the Vienna General Hospital. There, Semmelweis was interested in puerperal fever, a disease caused by an infection after childbirth that was fatal for some (the mortality rate was around 20-30%). The reasons causing this infection had yet to be studied.
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis
At the Vienna General Hospital, there were 2 maternity wards. The young doctor noticed that the mortality rate was higher in one of them, even though the same methods were used. The difference was that one of the wards was used to teach students and one was not. Adjacent to the teaching ward were an infectious disease department and a morgue where autopsies were carried out. In the second ward, midwives were the only caregivers present.
In 1847, Semmelweis’ friend Jakob Kolletschka, who accidentally cut himself with a scalpel during an autopsy, died. Semmelweis noticed that Jakob had the same symptoms as the women who were in labor that were also suffering from puerperal fever. He assumed that the students who assisted during deliveries in the first maternity ward had “corpse particles” on their hands.
After that, the young doctor forced all students to treat their hands with a chlorine solution after helping to perform autopsy. The method was really effective: the mortality rate was reduced almost by 10 times.
A lecture for students in the Central Clinical Hospital of Vienna
But in 1849, Semmelweis lost his job at the Vienna Hospital. According to one of the theories, it happened because the doctor took part in political protests, according to another one, the head of the hospital didn’t like his theories. One year later Semmelweis returned back to Pest, the eastern side of modern day Budapest, and served as the head of their hospital’s maternity ward for 6 years. Thanks to him, their maternal mortality rate was almost completely reduced. In 1855, Semmelweis was appointed to a role as professor of Obstetrics at the University of Pest.
Despite his significant discoveries, many of Ignaz Semmelweis’ colleagues had a skeptical attitude toward his findings. The idea that dirty hands were the only reason that was causing puerperal fever was revolutionary. In 1861, Semmelweis published his main work, Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever, but it was criticized by famous obstetricians. The doctor wrote open letters and even asked to conduct conferences, but all of his attempts failed.
The cover of Semmelweis’ Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever, 1861.
Unfortunately, the rejection of the medical community and constant criticism affected Semmelweis’ mental health. Starting from the 1860s, he experienced depression, behaved oddly in public, and only talked about puerperal fever. He also became addicted to alcohol.
In 1865, doctor János Balassa, Semmelweis’ colleague, wrote a request to send Ignaz to a psychiatric clinic. On the 30th of July, Semmelweis was tricked into a clinic in Döbling. He tried to escape but was caught by medical orderlies who put a straitjacket on him and dragged him back into the ward. He was prescribed cold water dousing and laxatives.
The monument to Ignaz Semmelweis
In 2 weeks, Ignaz Semmelweis died due to an infection. It developed because of a cut that Semmelweis accidentally got during a surgery carried out before he was hospitalized. Only a few medical journals even mentioned that the doctor had died.
His recognition came long after his death. Today, he is considered to be the one of the founders of antiseptic procedures. The Budapest University and a clinic in Vienna were named after Semmelweis. In 1906, a monument with the sign “Savior of Mothers” was sculpted in his honor.
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Preview photo credit akg-images / Erich Lessing / EAST NEWS