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Happy Birthday Ignaz Semmelweis!

Even if you’ve never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, you probably follow his advice multiple times a day. He discovered that there was a connection between washing your hands and spreading disease, which started the ball rolling on germ theory! Before his work, people had no idea that there was a connection between cleanliness and illness. Unfortunately, no one really believed him until well after his death.

July 1, 1818, Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Budapest, Hungary. After graduating with a doctorate in medicine in 1844, he went to work at the Vienna General Hospital as an obstetrician. There were two obstetric clinics in the hospital that were established to provide free care for women and their newborns in return for being patients for medical students and midwives in training. One clinic was set up for the medical students, the second for the midwives. Women would beg to be admitted to the second clinic and were even electing to give birth in the streets rather than be admitted into the first clinic. This was because more women in the first clinic caught puerperal fever (or childbed fever) after giving birth, which had a very low survival rate. Semmelweis was distraught about the high death rate among these new mothers in the clinic, and decided to get to the bottom of the problem.

After extensive research eliminating all differences between the clinics – everything from religious practices to overcrowded rooms – he determined that the only major difference was that the medical students were exposed to corpses and the midwives were not. The death of a good friend, fellow doctor and otherwise healthy man, due to a student accidently poking him with a scalpel during the autopsy of a woman who had died of puerperal fever, confirmed Semmelweis’ theory: cleanliness was vital to survival.

He determined that his students were carrying some unknown “cadaverous material” from the autopsy rooms into the birthing clinic. This is why the midwives weren’t experiencing the same problems – they weren’t exposed to the corpses. From that point forward, Semmelweis made his students wash their hands in a bleach-like solution between autopsy’s and giving birth. But his colleagues were not impressed. They found it insulting that Semmelweis was suggesting that, as gentlemen, their hands could be anything but clean.

The scientific community also rejected his findings. At the time, the belief was that the body was balanced by the “four humours” and when they became unbalanced is when sickness occurred. It was also believed that each illness was unique – as every person is unique – so Semmelweis’ idea that there was only ONE thing that made people sick was inconceivable. He was ultimately dismissed from the hospital and forced to leave Vienna.

He moved back to Budapest and began working at another birthing clinic. Childbed fever was running rampant. After just a year, he virtually eliminated the disease at that clinic as well, but the other obstetricians still didn’t adopt his methods. Semmelweis became obsessive and angry that no one was listening to him. He wrote letters to newspapers, accusing prominent European obstetricians of being murderers. His public behavior grew out of control. Looking back, it sounds like he might have been suffering from severe depression, Alzheimer’s disease, exhaustion or even PTSD, but his friends and family thought he was losing his mind. He was lured to an asylum, where he was badly beaten by the guards and strapped into a straight jacket. He only lasted 2 weeks. An injury (possibly from the beating) became badly infected and he died August 13, 1865. Semmelweis was just 47 years old.

As it turns out, many doctors – especially in Germany – were open to the practical idea of washing their hands in a cleaning solution. What they couldn’t accept was the idea that disease was caused by lack of cleanliness and that things that they couldn’t see were causing all of the cases of childbed fever. It wasn’t until many years later that Semmelweis’ discoveries were accepted into mainstream science and medicine. Louis Pasteur’s work with germ theory 20 years after Semmelweis’ death provided the scientific explanation that the community required. It has been said that if Semmelweis presented his discovery in an official manner and was less antagonistic with other physicians, his methods would have been better received and probably more quickly accepted.

Ultravation’s work with disinfection using UV light may not be directly related to washing your hands, but starting with that first brilliant deduction, we came to learn the value of controlling germs. Learn more about UV light disinfection and how Ultravation is using it to improve the quality of indoor air.


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