human behavior

Rediscovering Semmelweis

Posted in Foreign Impressions, Health & Medicine, Travel by humanb on March 20, 2012

Six years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a blog post on a German-Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865). So I was delighted when we happened upon the Semmelweis Medical History Museum in Budapest.

The Semmelweis Medical History Museum (and Historic Semmelweis Home & Shop)

The Semmelweis Medical History Museum (and Historic Semmelweis Home & Shop)

Semmelweis’ Story (re-posted)

From 1841 to 1843, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis witnessed an alarming death rate of pregnant women in the maternity ward of Allgemeine Krankenhaus teaching hospital in Vienna. Semmelweis noticed that pregnant women under the care of (male) medical students and physicians died after delivery at a rate of 13-18%, while women under the care of midwives died at the much lower rate of 3%. The women died of puerperal or “childbed” fever.

When Semmelweis’ colleague died of puerperal fever after cutting his finger dissecting a corpse, Semmelweis realised the cause of illness was to be found in exposure to cadavers. The (male) medical students and physicians would often go directly to maternity wards from performing autopsies. The midwives did not perform autopsies.

Semmelweis instituted mandatory hand sanitizing with a chloride of lime solution on the ward, and maternal mortality rates plummeted to 2%. He then required the sanitizing of medical instruments, and the rate further dropped to 1%.

Semmelweis’ superior, Dr. Johann Klein, rejected out of hand Semmelweis’ conclusions. Klein was convinced the drop in the death rate was due to a new hospital ventilation system, in keeping with the prevailing miasmatic (“bad air”) theory of disease. Moreover, Semmelweis’ colleagues bristled at the notion that they as doctors were causing the deaths of their patients.

Semmelweis’ discovery was not acknowledged until 20 years later, when Louis Pasteur discovered the germ theory of disease, and Joseph Lister developed his antiseptic techniques. Semmelweis suffered a mental breakdown and died in a Viennese mental asylum from a beating inflicted by asylum staff. He was 47.

*    *    *

The Museum is a memorial to Semmelweis’ life and work.

Semmelweis Memorial

The shop of Semmelweis's Father, Josef

But it also exhibits varied collections from the history of Hungarian and Western medicine and pharmacy.

Antique Surgical Tools

Antique Dental Chair

Life Size Model

Some of the instruments in the museum were fascinating – particularly early forms of x-ray. But the most satisfying aspect of my visit by far, was the opportunity to acknowledge Semmelweis himself.


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