In a meticulous study at the Vienna General Hospital, Ignaz Phillipe Semmelweiss discovered that expectant mothers were more likely to die of childbed (puerperal) fever if their attendants had previously been working in the dissecting and post-mortem rooms. The disease, he reasoned, must be caused by an infection carried from the dissecting room on the hands of doctors and students. When Semmelweiss insisted on strict hygiene, the death rate promptly dropped from 1 in 8 confinements to 1 in 100.(1)
Tragically, the Hospital professors responded with such hostility that Semmelweiss was forced to leave. Only 4 years earlier, in 1843, the American researcher and humanitarian Oliver Wendell Holmes had reached the same conclusion by careful observation, but had been similarly villified. According to medical statistician Dr Sigmund Peller, "In a world that had not been stultified by the idea that only animal experimentation and only the laboratory can provide proof in matters of human pathology, the battle against puerperal fever would not have needed to wait for the discovery of cocci (the responsible bacterium, discovered during the 1860s). The experts who, during the 1840s, opposed and prevented the initiation of a rational programme for combatting the disease should have been charged with a negligence that resulted in mass killings. But they were not."(2)
Proper recognition of Semmelweiss and Holmes, and the central role of cleanliness, would surely have hastened the introduction of lifesaving, hygenic measures in surgery. But these had to wait at least another 20 years until Lister developed his antiseptic techniques.
1) R.Sand, The Advance to Social Medicine (Staple Press, 1952)
2) S.Peller, Quantitative Research in Human Biology (J.Wright & Sons, 1967).
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