The tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis: The doctor tormented into an asylum for saying handwashing could reduce infection
Countries across the world are struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 340,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 14,700 confirmed deaths. One of the most prominent pieces of advice being given to help control the spread is quite simple: Wash your hands.
However, in the 19th century, the doctor who pioneered handwashing was ridiculed for his claims that it reduces the spread of infections. Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician and scientist who lived between 1818 and 1865.
Back then, it was common for women to die from an illness contracted during or after childbirth, known as childbed fever. Puerperal fever, an infection of the female reproductive organs following childbirth, was a common cause of death and almost seen as inevitable by medics at the time.
In 1847, Semmelweis noticed a worrying trend: He found that a student-run clinic had a much higher mortality rate from puerperal fever than the clinic run by midwives, sometimes three times higher. He noticed that the students examined the women after carrying out autopsies in the mortuary.
He then ordered the students to wash their hands with a chlorinated lime solution before every examination. Almost immediately, the mortality rate fell from 18 percent to one percent. Though it was successful, Semmelweis could not offer an acceptable medical explanation for its effectiveness to his peers — the existence of germs and them being the cause of infections was not understood scientifically at the time.
Therefore, senior doctors who worked with Semmelweis did not accept that doctors were causing the fatal disease among pregnant women. They believed that infections were spread through the air by something called miasmas, and attributed the low death rate to a new ventilation system. Semmelweis got another job as head of obstetrics in Budapest, Hungary, where he again succeeded at reducing mortality by insisting that doctors wash their hands.
The general reaction to Semmelweis's ideas was adverse. At a conference of German physicians and natural scientists, most of the speakers—including the pathologist Rudolf Virchow—rejected his doctrine.
The years of controversy gradually undermined his spirit. In 1865 he suffered a breakdown and was taken to a mental hospital, where he died. Ironically, his illness and death were caused by the infection of a wound on his right hand, apparently the result of an operation he had performed before being taken ill. He died of the same disease against which he had struggled all his professional life.
Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) insists on the importance of washing your hands as hands are the main pathways of germ transmission during health care. Therefore, the WHO suggests that one must wash hands between 20 and 30 seconds to effectively avoid the transmission of harmful germs and prevent healthcare-associated infections. Last week, Google honored Semmelweis by putting out a Doodle for him, along with tips from WHO on proper handwashing techniques.
Now, Semmelweis is widely remembered as “the father of infection control,” credited with revolutionizing not just obstetrics, but the medical field itself, informing generations beyond his own that handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases.