Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), from Buda, Hungary (now Budapest) was a physician who developed an early theory of germs (later carried to fruition by Louis Pasteur and others), what he called "cadaveric particles," and subsequently he established procedures for sanitary hand washing techniques and developed a chlorine antiseptic handwash. He believed these "particles" were leading to deaths in maternity clinics because of unsanitary habits of the physicians. Much of this had to do with doctors not washing their hands between baby deliveries, or even after dealing with dead people. Dr. Semmelweis was able to ascertain that there was a correlation between unsanitary practices and the transmittance of disease. The particular disease that he witnessed first-hand on a day-to-day basis was puerperal fever, which if untreated leads to puerperal sepsis, which is fatal. This is a bacterial infection that mothers are susceptible to during childbirth. From the 17th to mid-19th century, this condition was known as "The Doctor's Plague" because it seemed to primarily affect women in maternity wards upon delivery of their babies.

Dr. Semmelweis came to this breakthrough after a fellow physician and friend suddenly became ill and died after cutting himself whilst performing an autopsy. This led to Dr. Semmelweis' theory of "cadaveric particles," which he then applied to the deaths of mothers at the maternity clinic from transmittance by doctor's unwashed hands. Although there was push back against his theory and it was slow to take hold, Dr. Semmelweiswas able to "pilot" test his chlorine antiseptic handwash and handwashing techniques at his own maternity clinic, where after implementation in 1847, the mortality rate of mothers due to puerperal fever dropped by up to 90 percent. Clearly, Dr. Semmelweis was onto something and to this day, hand washing is stressed for sanitation and we are now using anti-bacterial hand soap, which although it has different chemistry to Dr. Semmelweis' chlorine antiseptic wash, it is most definitely on offshoot of his pioneering work.   





  1. Excellent synopsis of his work - another man overlooked when the status quo is challenged. The one detraction is your only reference is wikipedia - it might be an idea to find supporting literature.

  2. Interesting article, and great length. The development of basic sanitation has led to extremely large increases in lifespan, and Mr. Semmelweis's approach may have been simple but the impact was absolutely tremendous; very good topic of choice.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.