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Ignaz Semmelweis: Biography, Contribution to Medicine & Quotes

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the life and work of a largely forgotten man, Ignaz Semmelweis. But his contribution to medicine should be at the forefront of every expectant mother's mind.

Disregarded Contributions

What if you came up with a method to save the lives of countless women (and some men as well) only to have your techniques dismissed, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people over the decades to come? You'd be a little annoyed, right? Well, that's what happened with a man called Ignaz Semmelweis. Let's go over his life, contribution to medicine, and quotes in this lesson.

Biography

Ignaz Semmelweis was a German-Hungarian physician who was born on July 1st, 1818, in Buda, Hungary, which was then part of the Austrian Empire and is now Budapest, Hungary. His given name in Hungarian was actually Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis.

Ignaz Semmelweis
Ignaz Semmelweis

The fifth of ten children, Semmelweis was born to Teresia Muller Semmelweis and Josef Semmelweis.

He was educated at the University of Pest, now Eötvös Loránd University, and the University of Vienna. At the latter institution, he actually studied law at first but later changed his studies to medicine. In 1844, he received his doctorate in medicine. Although he tried to enter internal medicine, he couldn't find a place to practice, so he switched to obstetrics instead. This was a time when obstetrics was viewed as a lowly part of the medical profession.

By July 1st, 1846, he became an assistant to Professor Johann Klein at the First Obstetrical Clinic at Vienna General Hospital. This is where he would go on to make his greatest contribution to medicine, discussed in the next section.

In 1848, there was a liberal political revolution moving around Europe, and Semmelweis was a part of it in Vienna. However, the revolution was put down, and his participation led to his eventual dismissal from the clinic in 1849. He ended up returning to Pest in 1850 and worked at St. Rochus Hospital.

In 1855, he became professor of obstetrics at the University of Pest, and in 1865, he had a mental breakdown. He was taken to a mental hospital where he died, possibly as a result of a beating by guards or as a result of an infection. It's unclear.

Semmelweis married and had five children.

Contribution to Medicine

Semmelweis' major contribution to medicine had to do with something called puerperal fever, or childbirth fever. This is an illness that is caused by an infection to a woman's reproductive organs as a consequence of childbirth or abortion.

Recall that Semmelweis worked in the First Obstetrical Clinic at Vienna General Hospital. While there, he observed something extremely peculiar. In the First Clinic, 1 in 10 women died as a result of puerperal fever. At the Second Clinic, it was 1 in 25. This difference was well-known to the community, so much so that women begged to be admitted to the Second Obstetrical Clinic instead of the First, even preferring to give childbirth in the streets if they faced the prospect of going to the First Clinic.

Semmelweis was intrigued. He was also intrigued why women who gave birth in the streets rarely died from puerperal fever. Surely, a hospital is a much safer place to give birth, right?

Not back then it wasn't. Semmelweis began to try and piece together what was happening. After lots of observation and experimentation, the only difference he could pinpoint between the two clinics was the fact that the First Clinic employed doctors and medical students, while the Second Clinic employed midwives only.

Was it that the midwives were more skilled than the doctors? Not exactly. Semmelweis realized that the doctors and medical students were performing autopsies and then, with basically dirty hands, going to assist women giving birth. This transferred cadaverous particles from the diseased corpses to the women giving birth. Midwives didn't perform autopsies.

While Semmelweis didn't know it was microbes that were causing the problem, he did understand that proper hygiene was key to preventing this cross-contamination. Thus, Semmelweis put in place a policy that required everyone to wash their hands properly, with bleach no less. Again, he didn't know the bleach killed the responsible microbes, but he did understand that it destroyed whatever it was that caused puerperal fever and was better than with washing with water alone.

So what happened? The mortality rate dropped by a whopping 90%! He would go on to institute such changes in many other places with similar results.

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