What he fought against became his destiny

The most respectful Hungarian medical university is named after Semmelweis. His birthday is the feast of medical workers, and his name became well known as the saviour of mothers. What kind of man was he? A hardheaded one. He collected a lot of enemies in the medical society with his persistent stubbornness, but it could not happen otherwise. In a period, when a good doctor was recognized by the smell of corpses remotely, he pestered the venerable doctors with sanitary regulations. On the occasion of his 200th birth anniversary, we are looking into his tragic walk of life and the story of the Hungarian medicine.

Lysoform the guard of your skin – Sanitary questions

KF_7431_7.jpgThe most famous antiseptic of the Monarchy, Lysoform was used at childbirths as well. Nevertheless, childbirths were still conducted by midwives, typically at home. Antiseptics started spreading in households in the 1900s – Lysoform was launched in 1903 – but to change the sanitary conditions first they needed a change in people’s approach, which should have been shown not only in the spread of bathrooms. To make a change, the realization was also necessary, and thus a long way led to the sterile conditions of deliveries in hospitals.

The disease

When Ignác Semmelweis got his doctor of medicine degree in 1844 and later the obstetrician master degree, the circumstances in households and in clinics were completely different. The puerperal fever was already an urban phenomenon; it rarely occurred in minor settlements, but hundreds of women died in the maternity wards of cities. Although middle-class women bore their children at home, the poor, the homeless or unmarried women and prostitutes had to go to clinics.Semmelweis was always interested in the puerperal fever, even when he was a medical practitioner in Vienna; he noticed that the mortality rate in maternity homes was less than third of the rate in the maternity wards of clinics.

F_23754.jpgThe only difference between these institutes was that doctors held post-mortem examinations regularly in clinics with the purpose of education. After observing that ptomaine caused the fever, he also realised that he and his doctor colleagues were responsible for the mothers’ deaths. In order to avoid infections, Semmelweis suggested the hand-wash in bleach-power solution, but he bumped against a strong resistance. His discovery and sanitary regulations were taken offence by his colleagues, as how could they cause so many deaths, when they devoted their lives for healing. His reputation did not get better when the war of independence broke out. Though Semmelweis tried to stay away from the fights, the doctors at the clinic of Vienna did not look with favour on the Hungarian doctor’s work, and did not prolong his contract. Finally, he returned in 1851 and continued his work at the Saint Roch Hospital in Budapest.

The prophet’s death

VF_4648.jpgIgnác Semmelweis observed that the mortal number due to puerperal fever diminished to third when applying the bleach-powder at his hospital. After that, he suggested to his colleagues that they should wash hands as a preventive measure and then he made it compulsory for doctors, medical students and nurses. He managed to fight off the infection, but the medical society still did not accept his view, which was probably due to his quick-tempered nature and the fact that he often called his colleagues killers in his writings. Besides curing, he published his writings regularly; he was also a teacher and the financial manager of the medical staff.

As years went by, his behaviour became increasingly odd: he was neurotic and had bursts of anger. According to a recollection, he stood up on a council meeting suddenly and read aloud the text of the midwives’ oath. That time, not only his family but his colleagues also noticed his bizarre behaviour and concluded that he was insane. His wife asked him to take a bathing cure and visit their friend’s clinic in Vienna in the meantime. Ignác Semmelweis left for his last journey, escorted by his friend Dr. Lajos Markusovszky (who became famous for treating Artúr Görgei’s head injury). Semmelweis was locked up in Döbling in the summer of 1865, where he was beaten brutally because of his aggression, and he died of his wounds within two weeks. His death is still unclarified. The most likely version is that a wound on his hand acquired during the necrotomy of a woman, who died in puerperal fever, infected him with syphilis and caused encephalitis. His scientific results were acknowledged posteriorly, after the development of bacteriologic researches and Louis Pasteur’s oeuvre. The saviour of mothers found his final peace in 1965, on the place where he was born 150 years before. By some quirk of fate, the disease against which he fought became his doom.

Translated by Zita Aknai







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