With COVID-19 sweeping the world, I’ve been thinking about several stories I had written about medical breakthroughs for Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite. This one in particular seems relevant to our current situation. The discovery by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was big news over a century ago, but its principles are still being touted daily as one of the best courses of action against the spread of the disease.
In 1846, doctors at Vienna’s General Hospital in Austria were faced with a puzzling problem. Why were so many mothers and babies in the maternity ward dying of childbed fever? And why was the death rate in one maternity ward many times higher than in another?
The hospital served many women who were charity cases. These women could not afford costly medical care. In return for medical attention for themselves and their babies, they agreed to be part of the training program for medical students. Surprisingly, the death rate in the training ward was ten times higher than in another ward where doctors rarely visited and babies were delivered by women known as midwives.
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was determined to unravel the mystery of these strange deaths. He observed the wards and patients closely. With the other doctors, he carefully examined the dead bodies in the hope of uncovering some clues.
One day there was an unfortunate accident. One of the doctors cut his finger as he dissected a dead body. Even though the cut was only minor, the doctor soon felt ill. He developed a fever and in a few days died of blood poisoning.
Semmelweis noticed that the doctor’s symptoms were suspiciously like those of the patients who had died of childbed fever. Acting on a hunch, he watched the movements of the doctors and students. An interesting pattern emerged.
Midwives who attended patients in the healthier ward where doctors rarely visited, did not examine bodies in the dissecting room. But doctors and students often went directly from the dissecting room to the other maternity ward with the higher death rate. None of them stopped to wash their hands before going from one room to the other.
All at once pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. Semmelweis realized that doctors and students carried infection from the dead bodies into the maternity ward. He announced a new rule. From now on patients, students and doctors had to wash and disinfect their hands. Just as he suspected, the death rate soon dropped remarkably.
Despite the success of his methods, Ignaz Semmelweis was ridiculed by other doctors. They refused to believe that such a simple procedure could solve the problem. Semmelweis was forced to leave Vienna. His rule was forgotten and again the death rate climbed.
Years later, doctors around the world admitted that Ignaz Semmelweis was right. Today hand washing is recognized as one of the necessary steps in preventing the spread of disease.