In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, had only started working at the Vienna General Hospital’s maternity clinic. During that era, an overwhelming number of women were dying quickly after giving birth in hospitals due to ‘childbed fever”. Otherwise known as puerperal fever, this malicious infection was the singular most widespread cause of maternal death back then.
Incidentally, it was also in the 19th century that doctors were originally expected to possess scientific knowledge and to handle medical ailments using symptom-based diagnoses. Thus, autopsies became widely sought after in their efforts to understand what was going on inside the human body and to identify the root of diseases.
Semmelweis, being a man of science, wanted to understand why there were so many maternal deaths in his clinic. He conducted a study of 2 maternity wards and documented their mortality rates — one, manned by doctors together with medical students; the other, by midwives.
Results indicated that the rate of maternal deaths in the doctors’ ward was about five times higher. Also, when his colleague pathologist pricked his finger in an autopsy on a childbed fever sufferer and consequently got ill and died soon after, Semmelweis realized that puerperal fever can infect just about anybody.
He came up with a theory that doctors performing autopsies must be collecting some “morbid poison” or “cadaverous particles” on their hands. These particles are then transferred inside the mothers during child delivery and consequently made them ill. The midwives, because they did not perform autopsies, had less mortality in their ward.
Semmelweis immediately directed the medical personnel to cleanse their hands and instruments prior to delivering babies; using not soap, but chlorine lime solution until all traces of odor from the dissected bodies had been removed. Since then, the cases of puerperal fever drastically fell in the doctors’ ward.
So while we all recognize its importance today, hand washing really is a pretty new practice — even among doctors. This is an amazing story, and an inspiration for us all!