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The Cure

Unsung Hero: Ignaz Semmelweis

The physician who discovered that doctors could save patients' lives simply by washing their hands.

Last Modified: 21 Aug 2013 07:42
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It is 1847 and the death rate among pregnant women in the obstetric clinics where the Viennese physician Ignaz Semmelweis works is high. Puerperal fever, which is an infection of the female reproductive organs following childbirth, is a common cause of death and is almost seen as inevitable by medics at the time.

However, a worrying trend in the clinics which Semmelweis supervises in Vienna catches his eye.

After dealing with women so desperate to avoid one clinic that they would rather give birth in the street, Semmelweis decided to look into mortality rates.

He found that the student-run clinic had a much higher mortality rate from puerperal fever than the clinic run by midwives; sometimes three times higher.

Semmelweis came to the conclusion that the students carried something from the mortuary where they carried out autopsies, to the women they later examined. He ordered the students to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution before every examination. Almost immediately, the mortality rate fell from 18 percent to one percent.

Despite the successful hand-washing policy, Semmelweis could offer no acceptable medical explanation for its effectiveness. The idea that germs exist and cause infections was not developed at the time.

After struggling for years to promote his hand disinfection policies, Semmelweis was admitted to an insane asylum at the age of 47, and he died 14 days later.

In this animation for The Cure, we explore Semmelweis’s ground-breaking contribution to the field of medical hygiene.

 

Watch The Cure on Tuesday: 2230; Wednesday: 0930; Thursday: 0330; Friday: 1630; Saturday: 2230; Sunday: 0930; Monday: 0330; Tuesday: 1630 GMT. 

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