Who the heck was Ignaz Semmelweis?

“A gentlemen’s hands are clean!”

Semmelweis, was considered a prestigious medical doctor in the mid 1800s. He taught in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital in Austria. The obstetrics department was divided into patients using traditional midwives and those using Semmelweis’ medical students. Interestingly, the death rate among mothers using his medical students to deliver their infants was TWICE AS HIGH as those using the midwives.

After observing his students leaving the human dissection lab, where no preservatives were being used at this time (basically slowly-rotting bodies), he realized that it may be that they were bringing something into their patient’s deliveries from the rotting flesh of the dissection room. He had his students wash their hands before attending to their obstetric deliveries, and suddenly….their death rate among mothers dropped to the low levels of the midwives deliveries.

Eureka! He had found washing the hands was a GOOD THING for doctors to start doing. Seems logical, right? Unfortunately, the hospital’s other faculty thought the idea of washing hands was ridiculous.
Dr. Semmelweis was relieved of his duties, washing hands was stopped immediately, and the death rate went right back up to twice its rate.

Sadly, it gets worse from there. Dr. Semmelweis was attacked by his peers who thought his idea of hand-washing was unscientific. They placed him in a mental institution for his continued insistence of hand-washing being a vital need for doctors. He later died while imprisoned there.

“But, we have always done it this way!”

Ideas are not often judged by merit. When the automobile was invented many complained that it would hurt the buggy whip makers. The telegraph, radio, and other things taken for granted today were once considered crazy ideas. The most common response to innovation and improvements to our lives is, “We are not going to change, because we have always done it this way!” Nothing has held back great ideas more than that response. We can all think of times we offered a suggestion to a business we worked for, or even a local home owners’ association board where the response was quite similar to the response to Semmelweis’ brilliant and now obvious decision to wash their hands to help reduce infecting their patients.

Did you know you see reference to Semmelweis today?

So, the next time you visit a restroom in your favorite restaurant and see the sign above the sink that states, “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work”, think about Dr. Semmmelweis and what he went through to get that simple sign posted.

Wash Hands sign

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