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You call yourselves doctors? I call you murderers! How many mothers have you killed? Why won’t you listen? You carry death in your hands! You can’t see it, but it’s there. I have the proof, but you fools won’t listen. Dr. Ignac Semmelweis was an angry man, but he wasn’t crazy. He was a genius. He was called the savior of mothers because his research saved the lives of thousands of pregnant women and new mothers.
Semmelweis was originally from Hungary. As a young man, he went to Austria to go to university. Semmelweis studied law at first, but then he became a medical student. He specialized in the treatment of pregnant women. After graduating from medical school in 1846 , he became a doctor. He worked in the Vienna hospital, one of the most famous and respected hospitals in Europe. The Vienna hospital had two clinics that treated pregnant women and new mothers.
Doctors and medical students worked in the first clinic. Midwives worked in the second clinic. The second clinic, with the midwives, was for poor women who did not have the money to be treated by doctors. Strangely, it was this second clinic where both rich, and poor women wanted to have their babies. The second clinic was always crowded and women begged to go there. Even though the first clinic was more expensive and had many highly educated doctors, many women died there.
At that time, puerperal fever killed more than 10 percent of pregnant women and new mothers at the first clinic. At the clinic with midwives, only one percent of women died from this fever. These were healthy women. They entered the hospital in good health and a few days later, they would die.
No one knew what caused puerperal fever. Most doctors believed that it was connected to an imbalance in the four humors. The four humors were four fluids in the body that were connected to the elements: earth, air, fire, and water.
For example, one of the humors was blood, which was connected to the element of air. During the 1800s, doctors believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of these fluids and elements. Many doctors believed that problems with blood and air were connected to puerperal fever. They tried getting better air in the hospital, but it didn’t help. Other doctors believed that people with puerperal fever had too much blood in the body. Some doctors used leeches to suck blood from the sick person to balance the blood.
This also didn’t help. Another treatment for puerperal fever was drinking mercury. Everyone now knows that mercury is a poison, but at that time, some doctors believed it could heal sick people. Of course, none of these treatments helped.
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, that they chose to have 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. 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.
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 percent to 1 percent.
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. 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. 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. Over the years, he became increasingly angry. He often changed every conversation to the topic of disease and washing hands. He sent letters attacking doctors all over Europe who did not accept his ideas. He called them murderers and fools. He started to drink too much and started to spend time with prostitutes.
He became forgetful and depressed. He also began to attack his family. Maybe the stress of never being respected for his ideas was too much. Attacking his family was the beginning of the end for Semmelweis.
His wife put him into a mental hospital in Austria. Many mental hospitals in the 1850s were terrible places. Semmelweis tried to leave, but the guards tied and beat him. The beatings were so bad, he died two weeks after arriving.
How could a man that had saved so many lives fall so low? Now everyone knows that doctors must wash their hands. And everyone knows there are dangerous germs that are too small to see. This is common knowledge, but in Semmelweis’s time, this was crazy. Invisible particles killing people sounded like magic or the talk of a crazy person. It didn’t fit with the common knowledge of the time. Even though Semmelweis was correct, the people of his time could not accept an idea that was so different. This rejection of new knowledge because it does not fit with the accepted knowledge of the time is now called the Semmelweis reflex. Big jumps in science and technology often sound crazy.
People used to believe that the earth was flat. The idea that the earth was round was crazy. Semmelweis’s story reminds us all to stay open to new ideas, even if they are difficult to imagine.