During the 1850s, an ambitious Hungarian doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis stepped up to speak in front of the Vienna Medical Societies lecture hall. It was a famous hall where some of the world’s biggest medical breakthroughs and discoveries had been announced. And that evening on May 15th would be one of those miraculous moments. Unfortunately for Semmelweis, he would not be given the credit until several decades later.
What exactly was Semmelweis groundbreaking discovery? Well, it was simple really: wash your hands! During this modern age, doctors washing their hands between every patient is something we expect as a bare minimum. This is done to prevent the spread of infection. Thought at the time, in the 1850s, not much was known about the spread of bacteria and therefore the life-saving power of washing one’s hands was not acknowledged until much later.
It was Dr. Semmelweis that began to rhetorically tell his colleagues and fellow physicians to wash up, especially, before examining women about to give birth. And his plea was not just some words, for Semmelweis, it was a matter of life and death. You see during the 19th century it is about 5 in 1000 women died during childbirth delivered at home or by midwives. The shock is that the maternal death rate in the best maternity hospitals of Europe or America was often 10 to 20 times greater.
The cause was the spread of infection, it was caused by childbed fevers, this would cause raging infections in the birth canal which eventually caused the mother to die of sepsis in absolute hell of pain – all within 24 hours of the baby’s birth. Semmelweis figured out that the problem was doctors would first go see the patients suffering from fevers caused by childbirth, and then went on to see the mothers about to give birth – thus spreading the infection.
He enforced rules of washing hands in chlorinated lime solution, before seeing any new patients, this protocol caused the deaths in his obstetrics service to plummet. Unfortunately for Semmelweis, he was met with much resistance, many doctors were outraged that they were being blamed for the women’s death. This frustrated him to the point of a mental breakdown, and he was eventually put in a mental asylum.
Though praised today for pushing the boundaries of knowledge to save lives, at the time, the world was not ready for his discoveries.