Semmelweis was born in the city of Buda, then part of the Austrian Empire, on July 1, 1818. He was the fifth child of ten. His father was a prosperous merchant.
In 1837 Semmelweis enrolled in the
In 1846, he started his first job as a physician, working in First Obstetrical Clinic of the
The death rate of mothers from puerperal (or childbed) fever, a bacterial infection contracted during childbirth, was nine times higher in First Clinic than in Second. This fact greatly troubled Semmelweis. (Why him and not others?)
Semmelweis began to systematically compare the procedures used in each clinic in an attempt to discover the cause of the much greater mortality of mothers in First. He eliminated differences in climate, air quality, crowding, religious practices, emotions, and diet as factors.
In 1847, a colleague and good friend of Semmelweis died. This friend had been accidentally poked with a scalpel by a student doing an autopsy at the hospital. He then had quickly died of a disease strangely similar to puerperal fever.
Semmelweis immediately hypothesized that some sort of particle found in dead bodies was being passed to women in First Clinic and causing puerperal fever. Male medical students in First Clinic routinely went straight from examining cadavers to delivering babies. Female midwives never did.
The germ theory of disease did not exist at this time. Semmelweis did not know that the particle in question was in fact a bacterium.
To test his hypothesis, Semmelweis required all medical students to wash their hands, using a little bleach mixed in water, when going from working with cadavers to helping women give birth. In April 1847, before Semmelweis introduced this procedure, the death rate of women in First Clinic was 18%. Three months after he put this procedure into effect, the death rate had dropped to 2%. In 1848, he extended his procedure to include the washing of any medical instrument being used to deliver babies.
Despite this mercifully dramatic reduction in the number of women dying, other doctors in
Semmelweis had two significantly different ideas. One, he believed that a single impersonal cause was responsible for all the puerperal fever killing the women in First Clinic. Two, he believed this single objective cause could be eliminated by having the gentlemen of First Clinic wash their hands before delivering babies.
His initial contract of employment at First Clinic ended in March 1848. It was not renewed. Unable to find other work in obstetrics in
From 1851-1857, Semmelweis worked in a small hospital in
During the 1850s, the medical community in
In 1865, a professional colleague tricked Semmelweis into going with him to an institution for the mentally ill. There Semmelweis was involuntarily committed, severely beaten, restrained in a straight jacket, and left in a dark cell. He died of an infection two weeks later.
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