It’s hard to believe something every toddler knows today was once so groundbreaking, the guy who thought of it was shunned from the medical community. But that’s exactly what happened with the simple act of hand washing.
While working in a Vienna maternity clinic in 1847, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis witnessed a horrific number of new mothers dying from what they called “childbed fever.” But Semmelweis also noticed a pattern.
New mothers were cared for in two separate wards. One was run by midwives. The other by doctors and medical students. The mothers in the latter ward were five times more likely to die than those in the midwives’ ward. Semmelweis then discovered the main difference between the two facilities: the doctors and medical students also conducted autopsies, sometimes right before delivering a child.
Semmelweis theorized contaminated particles from the cadavers caused the shocking number of deaths, and proposed doctors douse their hands in chlorine between procedures. The rate of childbed fever plummeted, but soon, doctors resisted the practice. Doctors resented Semmelweis for calling them dirty and did not want to admit they were responsible for the deaths of so many mothers.
Semmelweis was removed from his position at the hospital in 1850. It wasn’t until years later that doctors eradicated the term “childbed fever”, realizing sepsis (the contaminated particles Semmelweis warned of) was what actually killed all those mothers. But Semmelweis never lived to see that day. He went into a tailspin after being removed from the hospital and ended up in an insane asylum, where he too died of sepsis. He was 47.