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Semmelweis Ignác

Semmelweis Ignác
(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 dramatically.

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.



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