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Ignaz Semmelweis, 1818 – 1865

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, is the father of sanitation. He studied in Hungary and Austria and held a series of prestigious posts at Universities in both countries. He was an obstetrician who studied midwifery.

His greatest contribution to modern medicine was his postulation of “particles” that could carry disease between patients, and even from cadavers to patients. When he began his career it was not protocol for doctors, nurses, or midwifes to wash their hands in between patients. The death rates for women giving birth in a hospital were much higher than women giving birth in their homes or even on the street.

Dr. Semmelweis postulated, after a colleague in Austria died with symptoms of childbed fever after being punctured during an autopsy, that the knife had carried “particles” from the cadaver to the doctor. Semmelweis immediately gave orders for everyone in his ward to wash hands after doing an autopsy before seeing a living patient. (It’s amazing to think that one wouldn’t have done this!) The death rate dropped drastically almost immediately.

While he believed in his particle theory, there was a great deal of political tension in medicine, and he was an outsider to the majority. Along with implicating doctors for the great number of deaths in maternity wards, his theory was seen as too “religious” for the time that was reveling in “science.” This conflict ultimately led to Semmelweis returning to Hungary from Austria.

Semmelweis continued to practice medicine in Hungary, with a successful practice where everyone washed their hands, and as a result he had a very low death rate. His theory on the importance of hygiene spread throughout Hungary quite quickly, but because of political and personal clash, it did not gain acceptance in Austria, and women continued to die, even in the ward of the hospital he had previously run with a low death rate.

Semmelweis died quite young after an unexplained nervous breakdown and commitment into an asylum. The most poetic version of his death claims that he was stabbed by an unclean autopsy knife in the ward and died of a transmitted disease, though this is largely held to be myth.

A few years later his theory would gain acceptance when Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur began to publish their work and theories on germs and hygiene. Semmelweis would eventually become known as the “Father of Hygiene” and “The Savior of Mothers” for his work in the maternity wards.

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