September 2018



Hungarian physician IGNAZ PHILIPP SEMMELWEIS (1818 – 1865) became known as the “savior of mothers” for his discovery that the occurrence of puerperal fever in obstetrical clinics could be dramatically decreased with regular hand-washing.

When a friend died after being cut while performing a postmortem exam, Semmelweis observed a pathology similar to that of new mothers who were dying of a fever and hypothesized that doctors were carrying infected particles on their hands from the autopsy room to the labor ward. In his clinic, he began firmly enforcing hand-washing with chlorinated lime solutions, and within a month the mortality rate from puerperal fever was reduced from 12.24 percent to 2.38 percent.

Sadly, Semmelweis was ridiculed in his lifetime and in 1865 was committed to a mental asylum. Within two weeks he succumbed to a generalized sepsis – not unlike that of puerperal fever – from a surgically infected finger. After his death, however, his work informed groundbreaking achievements, including Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease.

It has taken over a century, but Semmelweis’s innovation has inspired a global movement for patient safety and hygiene. His story teaches that even the most obvious ideas can be met with resistance.