Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Washing hands.




I am a big fan of Dr John Snow (a previous Hall of fame entry) but Dr Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865) has to be my all-time medical hero (tomorrow who knows).

Dr Semmelweis was a Hungarian Doctor who came to work in Vienna for a charity hospital for the poor. In particular, it provided medical help, money and adoption facilities for poverty stricken mothers.

There were two maternity clinics; one to train midwives and another which was used to train Doctors. The two clinics admitted patients on alternate days but the outcomes were dramatically different.

The Doctors ward was plagued by puerperal fever, an infection of the womb. Often over a third of the mothers died after childbirth.

By contrast the midwives ward had a very low rate of infection. It was so obvious that word had reached the street; on days when admissions were to the Doctors ward, expectant mums did anything they could to avoid being taken in. They would give birth at home or in the street outside and then attend on foot for the financial benefits. Meanwhile on midwives day, the new patients poured in to have their babies.

Semmelweis took it upon himself to try to find the reason, in a time before there was any understanding of ‘germs’.

In the end he came to the conclusion that the trainee Doctors were attending dissection before going around the ward. Something they were doing was causing the fever.

Semmelweis decided that everyone had to wash their hands before they entered the ward. After a huge battle to win the junior Doctors over, he was able to show a dramatic fall in infections and deaths. He didn’t stop it all together because he didn’t realise that hands needed to be washed between patients too; it was for Louis Pasteur to make the discovery of ‘germs’ many years later.

Instead of praise, poor Semmelweis got a barrage of criticism; senior Doctors took it as a personal insult and refused to wash their hands, considering it an attack on their social status.

Unfortunately problems at work and in the scientific community took its toll and eventually resulted in his admittance to a psychiatric hospital, where he was so badly mistreated and beaten that he died shortly after.

It’s a very sad story; the happy ending came with Pasteur and Lister who were to change the world from the starting point of Semmelweis’s research.

As Isaak Newton said; “we stand on the shoulders of giants”


Neil Harris

(a don’t stop till you drop production)


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