Living in a world of antibacterial soap and two-liter jugs of hand sanitizer, it's easy to forget that the connection between hand hygiene and health is a relatively recent revelation. But before germ theory, the modern concept of contagion didn’t exist—even doctors rarely washed their hands, whether they were examining patients or performing surgeries.
That is, except for one 19th century Hungarian physician, Ignes Semmelweis. Semmelweis had the potential to revolutionize the medical world, NPR says. But instead he died crazed and quite young of the exact malady he spent much his life trying to prevent.
In 1846, 28-year-old Semmelweis was fixated on a troubling problem. Women in his maternity ward at the General Hospital in Vienna kept dying of a sweating, miserable illness called “childbed fever,” also known as puerperal fever. He wanted to know: Could some of these deaths be prevented?
He studied two maternity wards in the hospital. One was staffed by all male doctors and medical students, and the other was staffed by female midwives. And he counted the number of deaths on each ward.
When Semmelweis crunched the numbers, he discovered that women in the clinic staffed by doctors and medical students died at a rate nearly five times higher than women in the midwives' clinic.
He tried out multiple theories to account for this difference, but all of them failed. Then, one of the hospital’s pathologists fell sick and died. He had pricked his finger during the autopsy of a woman who had succumbed to childbed fever.
That’s when Semmelweis finally saw a meaningful contrast between the hospital’s maternity practices. "The big difference between the doctors' ward and the midwives' ward is that the doctors were doing autopsies and the midwives weren't," Jacalyn Duffin, an instructor of the history of medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario told NPR.
Semmelweis hypothesized that doctors, fresh from the autopsy room, were spreading tiny specks of dead body to the women they were treating. So he ordered doctors to wash their hands and instruments in a chlorine solution, which immediately reduced the number of deaths.
The problem, however, was that after his plan’s initial success, Semmelweis’ colleagues gave it up. This was still the era of perceived humors, when doctors blamed most diseases on variations of bad air, and the other doctors didn’t believe the logic behind Semmelweis’ theory. They also resented being indirectly blamed for the women's deaths.
The good doctor eventually lost his job in Vienna and spent the rest of his life fighting with colleagues over sanitation. By the age of 47, he was committed to a mental asylum where he was likely beaten. Within 14 days, after one of his wounds became gangrenous, he succumbed to sepsis—which is just what killed many of the women in his maternity ward.
Despite this sad end, Semmelweis’s attempted contributions haven’t been forgotten. His ideas influenced the thinking of future generations and there’s even a women’s hospital in Vienna named in his honor. Yet, we’ll never know just how different the world of medicine might be—and how many lives would have been saved—had the doctors of Austria heeded his advice.