Childhood & Early Life
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was born on July 1, 1818, in Buda (now part of Budapest), Hungary. His father, József Semmelweis, was an affluent businessman. He was an ethnic German who owned a wholesale business for spices and consumer goods. Semmelweis’s mother, Teréz Müller, was the daughter of a coach builder. Semmelweis was the fifth of the ten children of his parents.
In 1837, Semmelweis joined the ‘University of Vienna’ to study law. However, after a year of studies, he switched to medicine. In 1844, he was awarded a doctorate degree in medicine. Following this, he obtained a specialization in obstetrics. Famous physicians such as Carl von Rokitansky and Joseph Škoda were his teachers.
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In 1846, Semmelweis was appointed as an assistant to Professor Johann Klein in the ‘First Obstetrical Clinic’ of the ‘Vienna General Hospital.’ His duties included examining the patients, supervising difficult deliveries, and teaching obstetrics students.
At the time when Semmelweis worked as an assistant, there were two maternity clinics attached to the ‘Vienna General Hospital.’ Semmelweis noticed that the mortality rate at the ‘First Clinic’ was considerably higher than that at the ‘Second Clinic.’ Puerperal fever, or childbed fever, was the cause of these deaths.
Semmelweis tried to arrive at a logical solution for the problem of high death rates in the ‘First Clinic.’ He eliminated commonly accepted reasons such as overcrowding and climatic conditions. Semmelweis noticed that the only major difference in the clinics was the staff who worked there. The ‘First Clinic’ had medical students, while the ‘Second Clinic’ had only midwives.
In 1847, one of Semmelweis’s friends, Jakob Kolletschka, died after he was accidentally poked with a scalpel while performing a post-mortem examination. While performing the autopsy of the body, Semmelweis noticed that his pathological conditions were similar to those of the women who had died of puerperal fever. This caused the suspicion in his mind that these deaths had some connection with cadaverous material.
Semmelweis reached the conclusion that the doctors were examining the patients immediately after conducting autopsies, causing puerperal fever. He implemented a policy of using a solution of chlorinated lime for washing hands after conducting autopsies. As a result, the mortality rate at the ‘First Clinic’ reduced considerably.
Semmelweis held that lack of cleanliness was the only reason for puerperal fever. This theory lacked scientific explanation and was not accepted by several physicians. Semmelweis continued his practices and started including surgical instruments in his washing protocol.
By the end of 1847, the findings of Semmelweis became known across Europe. His lecture was published in several medical journals, such as ‘The Lancet.’ There were several physicians who misinterpreted and refuted his claims. As Semmelweis did not communicate his theories directly, these misinterpretations continued to grow.
In 1848, the ‘Hungarian Revolution’ broke out in Vienna. Some of Semmelweis’s brothers were actively involved in these independence movements. Although there is no evidence that Semmelweis was directly involved in the movements, his career was adversely affected. On the expiry of his term at the ‘Vienna General Hospital,’ he was not re-appointed.
Ignaz Semmelweis submitted an application to be appointed as the docent of obstetrics. In 1850, Semmelweis was appointed as the docent of theoretical obstetrics. According to the terms of appointment, Semmelweis was denied the permission to use cadavers. A few days later, he left Vienna abruptly and moved to Pest.
In 1851, Semmelweis took up the honorary position of the head-physician at the obstetric ward of the ‘Szent Rókus Hospital’ in Pest. He held the position for 6 years. During his tenure, Semmelweis implemented his hand-washing methods, thereby reducing instances of puerperal fever. However, several other physicians were not ready to accept his methods.
In 1855, Ignaz Semmelweis was appointed as a professor of obstetrics at the ‘University of Pest.’ While holding the position, he implemented chlorine hand-washings at the maternity clinic of the ‘University of Pest.’ This gave good results by reducing maternal mortality rates.
Ignaz Semmelweis published several essays in the later part of his career. This was done to clear the misconceptions about his theories. He published two essays, ‘The Etiology of Childbed Fever’ and ‘The Difference in Opinion between Myself and the English Physicians regarding Childbed Fever.’ In 1861, he published his book ‘The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.’
Family & Personal Life
In 1857, Ignaz Semmelweis married Mária Weidenhofer. She was the daughter of a merchant. The couple had five children. Two of their children died in infancy.
In 1861, Semmelweis started showing signs of mental ailments. He suffered from depression and was absentminded. Semmelweis spoke harshly against his critics and exhibited violent temperaments. His public behavior became unacceptable, and his family suspected him of losing mental stability.
In 1865, Semmelweis was referred to a mental asylum. He tried to escape from the place but was severely beaten up by the guards. He was subjected to severe forms of punishments, such as being secured in a straitjacket and being confined to a dark cell. On August 13, 1865, after spending 14 days at the asylum, Semmelweis breathed his last. The autopsy reports stated blood poisoning as the cause of his death.
The practices adopted by Semmelweis were accepted many years after his death, when Louis Pasteur gave a scientific explanation for the ‘germ theory.’ Semmelweis is now regarded as a pioneer of antiseptic procedures. A university for medicine and related disciplines in Budapest, the ‘Semmelweis University,’ has been named after him.