Rediscovering Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818−1865)

Published:November 13, 2018DOI:
      Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was a Hungarian obstetrician who discovered the cause of puerperal or childbed fever (CBF) in 1847 when he was a 29-year-old Chief Resident (“first assistant”) in the first clinic of the lying-in division of the Vienna General Hospital. Childbed fever was then the leading cause of maternal mortality, and so ravaged lying-in hospitals that they often had to be closed. The maternal mortality rate (MMR) from CBF at the first clinic where Semmelweis worked, and where only medical students were taught, was 3 times greater than at the second clinic, where only midwives were taught, and Semmelweis was determined to find out why.
      Semmelweis concluded that none of the purported causes of CBF could explain the difference in MMR between the 2 clinics, as they all affected both clinics equally. The clue to the real cause came after Semmelweis’ beloved professor, Jacob Kolletschka, died after a student accidentally pricked Kolletscka’s finger during an autopsy. Semmelweis reviewed Kolletschka’s autopsy report, and noted that the findings were identical to those in mothers dying of CBF. He then made 2 groundbreaking inferences: that Kolletschka must have died of the same disease as mothers dying of CBF, and that the cause of CBF must be the same as the cause of Kolletschka’s death, because if the 2 diseases were the same, they must have the same cause.
      Semmelweis quickly realized why the MMR from CBF was higher on the first clinic: medical students, who assisted at autopsies, were transferring the causative agent from cadavers to the birth canal of mothers in labor with their hands, and he soon discovered that it could also be transferred from living persons with purulent infections. Bacteria had not yet been discovered to cause infections, and Semmelweis called the agent “decaying animal organic matter.” He implemented chlorine hand disinfection to remove this organic matter from the hands of the attendants, as soap and water alone had been ineffective.
      Hand disinfection reduced the MMR from CBF 3- to 10-fold, yet most leading obstetricians rejected Semmelweis’ doctrine because it conflicted with all extant theories of the cause of CBF. His work was also used in the fight raging over academic freedom in the University of Vienna Medical School, which turned Semmelweis chief against him, and forced Semmelweis to return to Budapest, where he was equally successful in reducing MMR from CBF. But Semmelweis never received the recognition that his groundbreaking work deserved, and died an ignominious death in 1865 at the age of 47 in an asylum, where he was beaten by his attendants and died of his injuries.
      Fifteen years later, his work was validated by the adoption of the germ theory, and honors were belatedly showered on Semmelweis from all over the world; but over the last 40 years, a myth has been created that has tarnished Semmelweis’ reputation by blaming the rejection of his work on Semmelweis’ character flaws. This myth is shown to be a genre of reality fiction that is inconsistent with historical facts.

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        American Journal of Obstetrics & GynecologyVol. 220Issue 6
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          I thank Dr Perlow for his interest in my article,1 and I welcome the opportunity to amplify my statements about what Dr Sherwin Nuland has written about Semmelweis, and to update my account of Semmelweis’s prophylaxis with the information I was able to glean from a French article by Friedrich Wieger, an eyewitness to how the prophylaxis was practiced, that Dr Russell Croft has translated for me since my manuscript was submitted.2 Wieger added the following to the chlorine hand-disinfection, which strikes me as a crucial omission from the Semmelweis historiography: “It is above all essential to brush the nails and the skin folds surrounding the nails with the most scrupulous care.
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      • Rediscovering Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis: some additional thoughts
        American Journal of Obstetrics & GynecologyVol. 220Issue 6
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          I read with genuine enthusiasm the recent comprehensive review of the life and work of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis—clearly one of the greatest of all obstetricians—and AJOG should be commended for realizing the importance of publishing and thus promoting this important work on a monumental chapter in obstetrical history.1 Over nearly 30 years of practice, I have lectured extensively about Semmelweis and his keen, serendipitous observations, which revolutionized our understanding of obstetrical infection and its prevention and the importance of clinical research.
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