To Learn from the Past is to Not Repeat the Mistakes of the Past


Ignaz Semmelweis was an Austrian-Hungarian obstetrician who worked in a Vienna Hospital in 1840s. He had no formal training in epidemiology, the discipline didn't exist back then, but he used his powers of observation and deduction to solve a serious problem. Women were dying of puerperal fever, an postpartum infection causes by Streptococcus pyogenes, at an alarming rate. Semmelweis noted that on the ward he supervised, run by medical students, the mortality rate was 10%. On the ward run by midwives it was less than 4%. Medical students came to round on the wards after performing autopsies, the midwives did not perform autopsies. When Semmelweis's colleague, a pathologist, died after suffering an accidental wound from a medical student's scalpel during an autopsy, Semmelweis noted pathological findings similar to the women who died of puerperal fever. Germ theory was not yet accepted and it was 20 years before the pioneering work in anti-sepsis by Joseph Lister. Semmelweis endeavored to have medical students cleanse their hands after conducting autopsies with a solution of chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite). Ordinarily they would simply wipe their hands on a rag. The mortality on the ward in 1847 dropped to a shade over 1%.

Semmelweis's intervention, however, was in conflict with the prevailing miasma theory (bad air) of disease transmission, and his idea was flatly rejected by the medical community. Data defeated by dogma. Semmelweis was forced to leave his post. At his new hospital he virtually eliminated puerperal fever. 


Medicine in stamps-Ignaz Semmelweis and Puerperal FeverAhmet Doğan Ataman, Emine Elif Vatanoğlu-Lutz, Gazi YıldırımJ Turk Ger Gynecol Assoc. 2013; 14(1): 35-39. Published online 2013 Mar 1. doi: 10.5152/jtgga.2013.08PMCID: PMC3881728

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