The man behind Semmelweis Straße

Throughout Europe there are streets with names like Semmelweis Straße, which are often located near hospitals and universities. So who was Semmelweis and why should his streets be associated with medical institutions?

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor who worked in Vienna in the 19th century. He is famous for saving the lives of many women, because he made a connection between the occurrence of puerperal (or childbed) fever and doctors handling cadavers. He also showed that the incidence of infection could be greatly reduced by disinfecting the hands. His discovery is particularly interesting because it was made before the germ theory of disease had been developed.

Semmelweis’ discovery was possible because he was in the unusual situation of being able to compare the post-natal outcomes of women in two clinics in Vienna. The difference between these clinics was that one was run by doctors (who also worked with cadavers) and the other by midwives (who did not). The death rate from puerperal fever was far greater in the clinic operated by the doctors. When Semmelweis introduced a chlorine solution to cleanse the doctors’ hands the incidence of the disease was dramatically reduced.

Sadly Semmelweis’ findings were not accepted by all of his contemporaries in the mid 1800s. Many could not imagine that something too small to see on a doctor’s hands could cause an infection, and attributed the fever to other causes. Semmelweis did perform experiments that showed that puerperal fever could be transferred from women to rabbits via bodily fluids, but he did not identify the bacteria that were the cause of the infection.

It seems unlikely that identifying the germs responsible for the disease would have helped Semmelweis convince his colleagues in any case. Both Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had difficulty getting contemporaries to believe their findings that linked microbial pathogens with disease. Pasteur participated in public debates in which he argued against the idea of spontaneous generation. One doctor showed his contempt for Koch’s theory by drinking a flask of cholera microbes he’d received from Koch (and survived, presumably saved by his stomach acid).

The experiences of Semmelweis, Pastuer and Koch illustrate that the connection between medicine and experimental science that exists today was not always so close. The training of doctors in universities, and the centralisation of patients in hospitals has changed the way that we look at both patients and diseases.

So next time you walk down Semmelweis Straße, spare a thought for the doctor who realised before his time just how important it is to wash your hands.

Further Reading:
Bowler, P. J., and Morus I.R. (2005). Chapter 19: Science and Medicine, from Making modern science: a historical survey, University of Chicago Press.

Wyklicky, H., and Skopec, M. (1983). “Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, The Prophet of Bacteriology.” Infection Control 4(5): 367-370.

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