Ignaz Semmelweis: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

ignaz semmelweis

Wikimedia Commons Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis, who saved the lives of many by recommending hand washing in European maternity wards, is being honored with a Google Doodle that is also educational. He was called the “savior of mothers.”

During the coronavirus outbreak, washing one’s hands is a key recommendation for preventing the virus’s spread. In that way, Semmelweis’s discovery is still saving lives today, as long as we heed it. According to CNN, Semmelweis was a “19th century Hungarian obstetrician who worked in the maternity wards at the Vienna General Hospital.”

Google wrote with its Google Doodle that Semmelweis was “widely attributed as the first person to discover the medical benefits of handwashing.”

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Semmelweis Studied Infections in Maternity Hospitals & Discovered That Hand Washing Lowered Mortality Rates

According to Britannica, Semmelweis, who was an assistant at an obstretric clinic in Vienna, Austria, was concerned about infections in maternity wards.

Specifically, he had noticed the problem of puerperal infection, which was taking lives throughout European maternity wards. Women who were poor couldn’t always afford to deliver their babies at home and were thus subject to this infection more than the wealthier women in society.

The mortality rates were sky high – up to 30 percent, according to Britannica. Over objection, Semmelweis set out to determine the cause. Semmelweis noticed that one ward in his hospital had students “who came directly from the dissecting room to the maternity ward,” and he believed that they were carrying the infection from those who had died to others. His solution: According to Britannica, he told them “to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before each examination.”

The mortality rate then dropped sharply. Wrote Google, “Today, Semmelweis is widely remembered as ‘the father of infection control,’ credited with revolutionizing not just obstetrics, but the medical field itself, informing generations beyond his own that handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases.”

2. Semmelweis’s Finding Holds True Today With the Coronavirus Outbreak

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an entire page devoted to the importance of hand washing, stating bluntly that it saves lives.

“Handwashing can help prevent illness. It involves five simple and effective steps (Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, Dry) you can take to reduce the spread of diarrheal and respiratory illness so you can stay healthy. Regular handwashing, particularly before and after certain activities, is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it can keep us all from getting sick. Handwashing is a win for everyone, except the germs,” CDC wrote.

It’s recommended that you wash your hands in the following circumstances,

Before, during, and after preparing food
Before eating food
Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
Before and after treating a cut or wound
After using the toilet
After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
After handling pet food or pet treats
After touching garbage

According to the CDC, “The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person. Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”

When it comes to coronavirus, CDC recommends,

“Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.”

3. Semmelweis Was Born in What Is Now Budapest

Ignaz Semmelweis

Wikimedia CommonsIgnaz Semmelweis

Although he worked in Vienna, Austria, Semmelweis wasn’t born there. “Born in Buda (now Budapest), Hungary on July 1st, 1818, Ignaz Semmelweis went on to obtain a doctorate from the University of Vienna and master’s degree in midwifery,” Google explained of his bio.

“When he began his tenure at the Vienna General Hospital in the mid 19th century, a mysterious and poorly understood infection known as “childbed fever” was leading to high mortality rates in new mothers in maternity wards across Europe.”

4. Semmelweis Was Enraged by the Medical Profession’s Failure to Embrace His Findings & He Died in a Mental Institution

ignaz semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis

Although it’s well-recognized today, Semmelweis’s peers didn’t all recognize his contribution to medicine and keeping people safe.

“Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers,” the Semmelweis Society International explains.

“His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind and he was in 1865 committed to an asylum (mental institution). Semmelweis died there only 14 days later, possibly after being severely beaten by guards.” According to Mirror, the struggle occurred when Semmelweis tried to leave the aslyum, which he had been tricked into entering.

5. Louis Pasteur Built on the Findings of Semmelweis

ignaz semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis

According to the Semmelweis Society International, acceptance gradually came, but come it did. “Semmelweis’ practice only earned widespread acceptance years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease which offered a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’ findings. Semmelweis is considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures,” the society explained.

Indeed, Semmelweis’s observations have become part of the lexicon.

“The Semmelweis reflex or ‘Semmelweis effect’ is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms,” the society wrote.

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