(Ignatius Semmelweis) obstetrician, the "saviour of mothers".
(Buda, July 1st 1818 - Vienna, August 13th 1865)
Ignatius Semmelweis, whose family were involved in commerce, after
finishing his studies at a Piarist school went to Vienna, where
he began to study law. He soon became interested in medicine and
in 1837 transferred to the medical faculty. His studies and future
professional work were greatly influenced by the two great teachers
of that time - the pathologist, Rokitansky, and the internist open
to new ideas, Skoda.
In 1844 he qualified as a doctor - one of the key topics on which
he was examined was the relationship between medicine and pathology.
He began his career working at a maternity clinic under Professor
Klein. At this time he carried out numerous dissections without
wearing any protective covering on his hands-rubber gloves only
made their appearance 40 years later. After dissecting corpses Semmelweis
would then examine expectant mothers or mothers who had recently
given birth taking no other hygienic precautions than simply washing
his hands. As a young obstetrician he soon found himself confronted
with one of the great medical riddles of his day - why were large
numbers of women dying of puerperal fever after birth to children.
From the middle of the 19th century it became the norm for women
to give birth in hospitals, where a lot of them died from blood
poisoning. Those who gave birth at home or in a maternity hospital
were much less likely to die from this disease. Semmelweis was shocked
by the deaths of so many young mothers and threw himself with passion
into the search for the causes of the disease.
In 1847 on hearing of the death of Jakob Kolletschka, the young
teacher of forensic medicine, Semmelweis examined the results of
the autopsy. He realised that the symptoms exhibited by Kolletschka,
whose death was caused by a wound received while dissecting a corpse,
which turned septic, were the same as those shown by the mothers
who had died of puerperal fever. This discovery was a great shock
to Semmelweis, for he considered himself to be responsible for the
deaths of the mothers since after carrying out dissections of corpses
he had performed his gynaecological work, infecting the women with
his own hands.
It became clear that the usual method of washing hands was insufficient
and Semmelweis hit upon the idea of using a solution of chloride
of lime, which proved to be an effective disinfectant. Semmeilweis
sent letters all round Europe informing his colleagues of his discovery
but they did not have much effect and Semmelweis was faced with
many obstacles when he tried to popularise the use of his disinfectant.
In 1855 Semmelweis returned to Hungary and became head physician
at the Rókus Hospital, where he introduced the use of his disinfectant
and as a result the number of women dying from puerparal fever fell
In 1855 Semmelweis was appointed professor of obstetrics and gynaecology
at the Budapest Science University.
In 1857 he published a series of articles puerperal fever in a
professional journal, "The Doctor's Weekly", and in 1860
he published a monograph in German on the same subject. Despite
this, very few European medical teachers accepted Semmelweis's ideas
and in many places women continued to die of puerperal fever unnecessarily.
In response to such outrageous negligence Semmelweis had a number
of open letters published in newspapers in which he accused famous
profesors of obstetrics of being murderers because they would not
use his discoveries.