For Ignaz Semmelweis Hand Washing is a Good Thing

Ignaz might have said, “Hand washing is a good thing.” I’m sure Martha Stewart would agree.
Legalese: published anywhere before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.

Welcome back Funny Names Fans. My favorite aunt once asked me to write a post about Ignatz Ratzkowaski. Only I can’t find him anywhere. But it did lead me to someone with an equally wonderful name.

Dr. Ignaz Phillipp Semmelweis entered the world on July 1, 1818 in Pest, Hungary, now part of Budapest. A Hungarian of German descent. He is now recognized as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures, but he wasn’t always.

After finishing medical school he was given a position with the First and Second Obstetrical Clinics of the Vienna General Hospital. Today’s equivalent would be chief resident.

In the early 1800’s European medical institutions began addressing the problems of infanticide of illegitimate children. At the time illegitimate children could not marry and had few legal rights.

Maternity wards across Europe were set up as free institutions and offered care for the infants. This made them attractive to poor women⏤including prostitutes.

Dr. Semmelweis noticed the high maternal mortality rate from “Childbed Fever” in the First Clinic and the low mortality rate at the Second Clinic run not by doctors, but by midwives.

The clinics rotated admission every other day for delivery of children. The First Clinic earned such a poor reputation, that on their day to accept patients, many mothers preferred to deliver their children in the street outside the hospital. The women would pretend to have given birth en route to still qualify for infant care.

The mortality rates due to infection drove Dr. Semmelweis to distraction trying to figure out the differences between the two clinics.

The First Clinic was a teaching hospital for medical students. Part of their day was spent studying cadavers, the rest of the day spent in obstetrics. The second clinic had midwives and no medical students.

Sadly, the breakthrough occurred when his good friend and fellow physician, Jakob Kolletschka, died after he was accidentally stabbed by a medical student’s scalpel while the student was performing an autopsy. Kolletschka’s own autopsy showed a similar pathology to the women who died from “Childbed Fever”(puerperal fever).

Dr. Semmelweis instituted a policy of hand washing using chlorinated lime and saw the death rate drop, when he added the cleaning of medical instruments it dropped to almost zero deaths.

Unfortunately, the germ theory of disease had not yet been accepted by the medical community of Vienna. So his theories conflicted with the medical and scientific communities of the time. Some doctors were offended that they needed to wash their hands. They were, after all, gentlemen and the idea their hands were not clean was inconsistent with being a gentleman. (Cough, cough.)

Semmelweis eventually offended most of his peers and his boss with his insistence on the importance of hand washing, and was eventually replaced. The mortality rate climbed back up, but no one mentioned it because of Semmelweis’s unpopularity.

Semmelweis moved his family to Vienna, but could only get pro bono work, no one would pay him, yet the clinic he ran showed the same improved results.

He eventually publicly denounced his peers for not following his methods. Then he began to show signs of some sort of “cognitive disorder”, at the age of 47, which fixated around his theory. So the medical leaders at the time had him committed to an insane asylum, where he was beaten by the guards and died two weeks later from a gangrenous wound possibly caused by the beating.

It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur’s discoveries confirmed the germ theory of disease that Ignaz Semmelweis was recognized for his contributions to medicine.

Tracy – Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom

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About Fannie Cranium

Writing since she could first hold a pen, Tracy Perkins formed her alter ego, "Fannie Cranium" at the suggestion of her husband. Tracy understands smiling makes people wonder what she’s been up to.
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9 Responses to For Ignaz Semmelweis Hand Washing is a Good Thing

  1. wdydfae says:

    What a heroic but sad story. Blurbs fail me. Nice job, Fannie!

    I guess we should learn that it’s good to do the right thing even if it ends in reproach, contempt, then being institutionalized, brutalized, neglected, and left to die, as opposed to awards, swelling music, glowing smiles, confetti, applause and tearful speeches of gratitude.

    Darnit! I thought it was supposed to be like A Beautiful Mind or something.

    • Thanks, Wdydfae! There were six movies made about him, only one in the U.S.–a short, indy film, which might have swelling music, but a little late for Dr. Semmelweis.

      At least now we can recognize him for his achievements. It does make me wonder what our modern day equivalents must be going through in their battles with big pharma and the medical institutions. I guess only time will tell.

  2. What a great pioneer he was. He deserves to be more widely known. I for one had never heard his name before. What an awful, brutal, undignified end he suffered.

  3. Reblogged this on Fannie Cranium's and commented:

    Ignaz Semmelweis proved hand washing was a good thing. But he paid the ultimate price trying to prove it. This month’s contribution to the Blog of Funny Names.

  4. ksbeth says:

    instead of singing the abc’s to know when they’ve been washing their hands long enough, i can have my kinders say his name.

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