By Rodger Malcolm MitchellSaturday, Jun 25 2016
Does the name Ignaz Semmelweis sound familiar? I empathize with him and the memory of him exhausts me.
Here is a bit of history:
The year was 1846, and our would-be hero was a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis.
It was a time when physicians were expected to have scientific training.
So doctors like Semmelweis were no longer thinking of illness as an imbalance caused by bad air or evil spirits. They looked instead to anatomy. Autopsies became more common, and doctors got interested in numbers and collecting data.
Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying from puerperal fever -- commonly known as childbed fever.
When Semmelweis crunched the numbers, he discovered that women in the clinic staffed by doctors and medical students died at a rate nearly five times higher than women in the midwives' clinic.
(After much research), Semmelweis hypothesized that there were cadaverous particles, little pieces of corpse, that students were getting on their hands from the cadavers they dissected.
And when they delivered the babies, these particles would get inside the women who would develop the disease and die.
So he ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments not just with soap but with a chlorine solution.
Semmelweis didn't know anything about germs. He chose the chlorine because he thought it would be the best way to get rid of any smell left behind by those little bits of corpse.
And when he imposed this, the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically.
What Semmelweis had discovered is something that still holds true today: Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay.
You'd think everyone would be thrilled. Semmelweis had solved the problem! But they weren't thrilled.
For one thing, doctors were upset because Semmelweis' hypothesis made it look like they were the ones giving childbed fever to the women.