What if… thousands of lives could have been saved?

The science is not only about new technological discoveries but also about saving people’s lives. The medicine has also made an outstanding progress due to talented doctors and professors.

Throughout the centuries medical scientists were trying to find the cure for various diseases that were taking away thousands of lives. But not each discovered solution was immediately accepted. Let’s look deeper in the history.

Almost till the middle of XIX century the post-partum fever was running riot in the hospitals all over Europe. In particular years, it took away up to 30% of women’s lives who gave birth in hospitals. The autopsy showed one and the same answer: sepsis.

The solution was found in 1847. A 29-year-old doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, discovered the cause of the disease — poor disinfection. At that time practically every hospital had a mortuary and very often the same doctor who prepared dead bodies, then delivered babies. The only disinfection was soap and water. Unbelievable nowadays, but a real fact in the past.

After his research, Semmelweis immediately suggested to replace the soap-and-water wash with chlorinated lime, which destroyed the cadaverous particles adhering to the hands of the doctors. He applied his new method in St. Rochus Hospital in Pest and it considerably reduced the mortality rate, the average was only 0.85 percent. In meantime, in other countries the rate was still from 10 to 15 percent. [2]

In 1861 Semmelweis published his main work,“The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever”. It was sent to all well-known obstetricians and professors abroad, but the general reaction was hostile. The weight of authority stood against his teachings. He addressed several letters to professors of medicine. But no effect was produced…The situation was left one and the same: doctors didn’t disinfect their hands and patients died. That was considered a normal practice.

Despite numerous publications of results where chlorinated lime usage reduced mortality to below 1%, [1] Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established medical opinions and his ideas were not accepted by the medical community. One of the proofs is a conference of German physicians and natural scientists, where most of the speakers rejected his doctrine. [3] Frustration and misunderstanding from his colleagues’ side, led the doctor innovator to a mental health facility.

His merits were appreciated only in 37(!) years, after Pasteur and Lister’s discoveries in this sphere.

Imagine, what if Semmelweis had had a possibility to dispose his investigations of the problem and documented practical results to a public access. Then, first of all, Semmelweis would not have spent so much of his time on writing and sending letters to other doctors, desperately trying to convince them. He would have had more time to advance his discovery. Secondly, if professors and doctors would have had a free access to Semmelweis’s works, they could have assessed them, giving a real impartial evaluation. The first steps towards a creation of a modern antiseptic would have been applied properly in Semmelweis’s lifetime.

Marie Mulyarchik, Editor, DEIP

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Have any questions?

  1. Semmelweis, Ignaz, The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever, trans. K. Codell Carter (reprinted by permission of University of Wisconsin Press, 1983) in Medicine: A Treasury of Art and Literature 136.
  2. Semmelweis Society International. “Dr Semmelweis’ Biography”.
  3. Hauzman, Erik E. (August 26–30, 2006), Semmelweis and his German contemporaries.

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