In early times, like today, people tried to find ways to explain things that they did not understand. There was a time when mice and rats were thought to have grown from cheese left in the corner, frogs were believed to grow from pond scum, and maggots were thought to come from rotting meat.
By the nineteenth century, scientists had abandoned this theory (called spontaneous generation) as an explanation for the existence of visible animals, but not for diseases. Infections and illnesses were thought to have been caused by impurities in the air. Doctors did not understand the necessity of cleanliness when dealing with patients and were unaware that they could be transmitting diseases from one patient to another with their unwashed hands. Doctors in the mid-nineteenth century made revolutionary advances that influenced modern medicine. Three such men were Ignaz Semmelweis, Louis Pasteur, and Joseph Lister.
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was born in Buda, Hungary on July 1, 1818. Although he was born in Hungary, his family was of German origin. Semmelweis traveled to Vienna in the fall of 1837 and enrolled in medical school. His father had wanted Ignaz to study law, but shortly after he arrived in Vienna, Ignaz was attracted to medicine. At the age of twenty-five he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Vienna in 1844. Later on that year he earned his Master of Midwifery.
Once he received his Master’s degree, he applied for and was given the position of Assistant in the Lying in Division of the Vienna General Hospital (Wilson).
The Lying-in Division was where poor or unwed women often came to have their babies.
Childbirth was not a safe thing in those days. The Vienna General Hospital, along with most hospitals of the time, had many women die from an infection that was called endemic childbed fever. Childbed fever is also known as puerperal fever. Ignaz Semmelweis was a deeply sensitive and humanitarian man. He devoted his life to finding a way to control this deadly infection.
The hospital had two obstetrical clinics, each averaging about 3,000 deliveries per year.
Semmelweis tabulated the deliveries and deaths for each clinic, month by month, for the period from 1841 to 1846. He found that the death rate from puerperal fever in First Clinic, where medical students were trained, was 9.9%. All the deliveries in Second Clinic were done by midwives. Second Clinic had a death rate from puerperal fever of 3.3% (Wilson). Semmelweis was disturbed by the fact that one clinic could have three times as many deaths as another. Semmelweis found it particularly disturbing that in 1847, when he had been in charge of First Clinic for over a year, the death rates from puerperal fever remained just as high.
Semmelweis attacked the problem from every angle imaginable. By 1847 there was no doctor in Vienna with greater knowledge of puerperal fever than Ignaz Semmelweis. He had learned all that the current information...