Coronavirus: Did you know this tragic story of the doctor who asked his peers to wash their hands?

·3-min read

Dr Ignaz Semmelweis was the first to suggest that doctors wash their hands to prevent spread of diseases. His theory was rejected, he was disgraced and he died in an asylum in 1865.

Dr Ignaz Semmelweis was the first to suggest that doctors wash their hands to prevent spread of diseases
Dr Ignaz Semmelweis was the first to suggest that doctors wash their hands to prevent spread of diseases

More newsprint and terabytes of data have been dedicated to the practice of washing hands these days than any other topic. And while today, wash your hands may seem like the most logical thing to do so as to protect yourself from catching coronavirus, the idea was met with stiff opposition when it was first introduced to the medical community.

Back in the 1840s a Hungarian doctor called Ignaz Semmelweis started a new job at a maternity clinic in Vienna. Back then, the city was crippled by a mysterious illness that was affecting and taking the lives of new mothers. The disease was called childbed fever but because women believed that it was the doctors who were bringing death to the maternity wards, it came to be called doctor’s plague.

They weren’t wrong.

Now, the hospital in Vienna where Dr Semmelweis worked had two separate maternity wards: one had male doctors while the other was staffed by midwives. When he studied the death rate, Dr Semmelweis discovered that the number of people dying in the male-staffed ward was twice as much as the ones where the midwives delivered the babies.

He tried to come up with an explanation to this but, for the longest time, couldn’t put his finger on it. Could it be that the women were embarrassed of being examined by a male doctor? Did it have something to do with the positions in which they delivered the babies? He even briefly wondered if the priests in the clinic and the bells in the clinic had something to do with the illness.

It wasn’t until one of his colleagues fell ill and died after performing an autopsy on the victim of childbed fever that the penny dropped. That was when he began to look at the routines of doctors and midwives. As it turned out, there was one minor but important difference in their routines.

While the doctors began their day by conducting autopsies of the dead from the previous day, the midwives refused to touch dead bodies or conduct autopsies. Dr Semmelweis hypothesised that microscopic particles from the dead bodies would be transferring from doctors’ hands to the pregnant women. He tested out his hypothesis by asking his colleagues to clean their hands and medical instruments with a chlorinated lime solution. Predictably, the number of childbed fever cases dropped.

Some years later he presented this hypothesis at the prestigious Vienna Medical Society. But instead of being applauded for his work, Dr Semmelweis was criticised and his theory rejected. Why? Because his fellow doctors saw it as a personal attack. In return Dr Semmelweis refused to publish his findings. In the meanwhile the Vienna hospital where he worked went back to their old routine even though it was proven that was what was causing the deaths. Disillusioned, Dr Semmelweis moved to Pest in Hungary where he worked in a maternity ward of a hospital and implemented his hand- and surgical instruments-washing practices. Sure the maternity deaths reduced but Dr Semmelweis couldn’t shake off his rejection in Vienna and the repeated dismissal of his theory that had shown positive effects.

Eventually, in 1865, he was checked into an asylum where he died just 14 days after admission reportedly after being beaten up by guards. It is believed he died of sepsis caused by the infected wounds.

It would be years before antiseptic surgery became an acceptable form of practice and Germ Theory came to be accepted in mainstream medicine. And today, at a time when the world is battling coronavirus, nearly two centuries after his death, we are finally taking the words of Dr Semmelweis seriously.