No one knew what to do. Some doctors thought that there was
nothing that could be done to stop puerperal fever.
Semmelweis was also confused by this problem, but he would
not give up. He didn’t understand why the women in the first
clinic, with doctors and medical students, did so much worse than
those in the second clinic, with midwives. Some women were so
afraid to go to the first clinic, they chose to have their babies in
had their babies in the street.
Even these women did much better than the women who went to
the first clinic. Semmelweis looked at all the differences between
the two clinics and the only important difference was the people.
difference between the clinics was the people.
Around this time, his friend Jakob, a doctor at the hospital, died
from puerperal fever. Before he died, Jakob cut his finger while
examining a dead body. Semmelweis thought that there might be
a connection between the dead body and Jakob cutting his finger.
Maybe there was something invisible that traveled from the dead
body into Jakob’s cut finger.
Maybe this made him sick. Semmelweis knew that the medical
students often examined dead bodies before treating the
pregnant women and new mothers.
treating the pregnant women.
Maybe invisible particles from the dead bodies were the cause of
the puerperal fever. Maybe these invisible particles were traveling
on the hands of the medical students and killing the mothers at
the first clinic. Semmelweis tested his idea and he was right. The
doctors started washing their hands before seeing patients and
deaths from puerperal fever quickly decreased from 10% to 1%.
deaths from puerperal fever quickly decreased from 10% to
Semmelweis’s simple idea was a success. He saved the lives of
thousands of women, but he didn’t become a hero.
He was ignored by the senior doctors and his boss. This may
have been because Semmelweis was a junior doctor, and the
senior doctors had too much pride to be taught by a younger
man. Semmelweis’s boss was a man named Klein. Klein thought
that Semmelweis’s idea made him look bad.
thought that Semmelweis’s idea made him look bad.
Klein was the person who decided that medical students should
examine dead bodies on the same days that they treated
pregnant women. If Semmelweis’s idea was correct, Klein’s
decision was wrong. Klein attacked Semmelweis and his ideas.
Most doctors believed that imbalance of the body’s fluids was the
cause of disease.
Semmelweis’s ideas about invisible particles from dead bodies
just did not fit into their understanding of health and disease.
Some doctors were insulted that Semmelweis was saying that
they were not clean. They couldn’t believe that they were the
cause of the disease. These were highly educated men who
made their life work healing. To have a young doctor say that
they were killing their patients was unbelievable. It is hard to
believe, but Klein was successful in attacking Semmelweis’s
ideas and destroying his name.
successful in attacking Semmelweis.
Even though his discovery had saved the lives of thousands of
women, he was fired from the hospital in 1850. Semmelweis left
Austria and returned to Hungary, where he started working as a
doctor there. He had similar success in reducing puerperal fever
there. He married, had five children and became a successful
private doctor, but he was not happy.
married and had five children.