Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Inventor of Handwashing Died of a Flesh Wound

The Google Doodle of the Day on Saturday was a fascinating rabbit hole.  It features Ignaz Semmelweis, who was one of the first proponents of handwashing.

As an Austrian doctor and obstetrician during the mid 1800s, he noted that one clinic in the Vienna general hospital had a much lower rate of childbirth than the other.  He noted that in one maternity clinic the practitioners also dealt with the morgue, and the other one they didn't.  He did a series of experiments, trying to discover what the difference was to make the mortality rate so high in one clinic and not the other.  Through a process of elimination, he imagined that there were minuscule cadaverous materials that the doctors were bringing with them from the morgue, and was convinced that was the problem.  As an experiment, he asked them to clean their hands using a solution of chlorinated lime (because this was good at erasing the smell of corpses.)  The mortality rate went from 10-15% in that ward month to month down to 1-2%, and even a couple of months there were no mortalities.

Despite this evidence and more, the medical community scorned his ideas.  He had 20 years of rejection and people laughing at him.  He lost his post in Vienna, moved to Budapest and took to writing incendiary letters to his detractors and to obstetricians, calling them murderers.  In the end, his wife and his friends committed him to an asylum, where he died two weeks later of-- oh the irony- gangrene from an infected wound.

This chart courtesy of the Wikipedia article on Semmelweis.
The esteemed scientists who laughed at him believed in the idea of four humours-- that diseases were individual, and that the best way to right a person was by bloodletting.  20 years after his death, Louis Pasteur's theory of germs became widely accepted and would have been supported by the work of Semmelweis.

Semmelweis's struggle has been captured in plays, films, and operas. In fact, a 1938 film about him won the Best Short Film Oscar (One Reel) of 1939.  That Mothers Might Live. (video below)

Also, Semmelweis's plight has been immortalized in a psychological term known as the Semmelweis Reflex, which is the often reflexive tendency to reject new ideas or evidence because it contradicts established norms or beliefs.

And this could still happen today.  That's why it's so important to have an open mind and be willing to be persuaded by new evidence or knowledge.   (I'm looking at you #trumpsupporters)

Enjoy this movie-- I found it on Youtube, and its' pretty powerful.

Thumbnail biography of Ignaz Semmelweis (courtesy of Wikipedia)

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Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865) was an Austrian-Hungarian physician and scientist, now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Described as the "saviour of mothers", Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever (also known as "childbed fever") could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal. Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital's First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors' wards had three times the mortality of midwives' wards. He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. 
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Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis's observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and mocked him for it. In 1865, the increasingly outspoken Semmelweis supposedly suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an asylum by his colleagues. He died 14 days later, at the age of 47, from a gangrenous wound on his right hand which might have been caused by a beating from the guards. Semmelweis's practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory, and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist's research, practised and operated using hygienic methods, with great success.

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