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Wash Your Hands: The Ignác Semmelweis Story

Wash Your Hands: The Ignác Semmelweis Story

As the Coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, the advice that has been repeated over and over is to wash your hands. Simple, easy to follow, and an act of unparalleled importance in staying protected from infectious diseases. In the article, we’ll delve deeper into the triumphant and tragic life of Dr Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis. The Hungarian physician who first told us to “Wash Your Hands” over 170 Years ago and was recently honoured in a google doodle.

Important Resources


Who Was Ignác Semmelweis?

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The Parents of Ignác Semmelweis | Photo: József Antall, Géza Szebellédy (1973)

Semmelweis was born in the old city of Buda back 1818, to a fairly middle-class family of German ancestry. Semmelweis spent his early years amongst the luscious Buda hills before leaving for Vienna to further his academic career. After starting off in law school, he made the switch to study medicine and graduated in 1844 with a doctorate from the University of Vienna. At the age of 29, he became the chief resident at an obstetrics clinic in the imperial capital of Vienna. It was here that he would make a discovery that would shape the world forever.


Noticing Discrepancies

During the time Dr Semmelweis began practising, the world of medicine was very different. In general, the doctors were a bunch of dirty buggers who didn’t fully grasp the importance of cleanliness in infection control.

Whilst working in obstetrics, Semmelweis noticed an astonishing difference between maternal mortality rates in two different wards of his clinic and their relation to puerperal fever. Also known childbed fever, this ailment was often fatal, and at that time was seen as an unavoidable scourge, killing up to 30 percent of mothers in some cities

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Photo: Enrique Grau – International Museum of Surgical Science Collection

In the first ward, the birthing and delivery were handled by medical students, and in the second ward by midwives. Semmelweis’ observed that the incidence of puerperal fever was sky-high high in the first ward when compared with the lower levels in the second ward.

So what accounted for the difference?

Semmelweis theorised that the difference in infection rates was down to the fact that medical students were conducting autopsies on disease-riddled cadavers, before delivering the babies. Although this sounds pretty nuts, back then the concepts of cleanliness, hygiene and germs were not fully-fledged.


Experimenting With Lime Chloride

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Most medical professionals thought that disease simply travelled through the air in the gaseous miasma. This is why Semmelweis’ superiors offered improved ventilation a potential solution for childbed fever.

Yet Semmelweis saw things differently. He decided to initiate a study in which the medical students would be forced to wash their hands and instruments would be cleaned using a lime chloride solution. The results were stunning.

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  • Handwashing with lime chloride: This saw the maternal mortality drop from 18% to 2%.
  • Cleaning Medical instruments – mortality dropped to 1% and finally, Semmelweis’ clinic went entire months without a death.

Ridiculed and Return to Hungary

Despite convincing a number of younger doctors at his clinic, their older superiors remained unconvinced. The senior staff came from a tradition that viewed doctors as infallible, almost holy figures. For them, it simply did not compute that it was the physicians themselves who were responsible for spreading disease. Semmelweis was subsequently blackballed from the sanctimonious, yet prestigious world of Viennese medicine, and was forced to return to his Hungarian homeland.

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Following the 1848 Hungarian revolution, Semmelweis took up a post at the St. Rochus Hospital in Pest which had been absolutely ravaged by an epidemic of puerperal fever. Using knowledge gleaned from his time in Vienna, our fair doctor implemented stringent hand washing and sanitary measures in his hospital. Maternal mortality plummeted to less than 1%. This was in contrast to Prague and Vienna which had rates of up to 15%.


The Fall of a Medical Maestro

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One would assume that Ignác lived a happy life after this, basking in the unprecedented glory of his life-saving heroics. Sadly this was not the case. After collecting his findings in what he hoped to be a seminal work known as The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. Semmelweis hoped that the vital importance of handwashing might finally gain mainstream adherence. Alas, he was once again shunned by the older members of his profession. Tragically Semmelweis suffered a mental breakdown in 1865. Depressed and suffering badly, he eventually lived out his final years in a mental institute where he subsequently died. Ironically enough from an infection to a wound in his right hand.


The Legacy of Ignác Semmelweis

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Photo: Google

Like many great visionaries, Semmelweis’ reputation has grown tremendously since his death. Once the discoveries of Louis Pasteur, the godfather of modern vaccination and immunology, gained acceptance at the tail end of the 19th century, the medical profession was finally able to acknowledge the deeds of this Hungarian medical pioneer.

Sir Joseph Lister, a British scientist who is known as the founder of antiseptic medicine (in other words, surgical cleanliness) greatly admired Doctor Semmelweis, even crediting him for his own subsequent breakthroughs.

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Photo: Lister, Semmelweis and Pasteur. Three pioneers of medicine

Perhaps his most significant honor was bestowed at the turn of this millennium when Hungary’s top medical school, in operation since 1769, was renamed as Semmelweis University. In the century-and-a-half following his ignominious death, the reputation of Doctor Semmelweis has grown from strength to strength.

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Photo: Semmelweis Egyetem

He is now rightly recognized as the saviour of mothers and a trailblazer for modern medical safety. Recently he was featured in the google doodle, an ode to his findings and advice for handwashing, something that is helping us combat the issue of coronavirus today.


In the modern age, with all the advances in technology, it’s fascinating to see that something so simple, is the most effective measure in fighting off infections and disease such as coronavirus. Though many lives have been lost, and more will be lost in the coming months, wash your hands to stay safe and when you do, remember the man who first set the trend and saved so many with his advice, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis.

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