If you're anywhere near a screen these days, there's one piece of

advice you will find hard to miss: WASH YOUR HANDS . In these times of

coronavirus , it seems like the most obvious thing to do. But this

wasn't always the case. In fact, western medicine discovered pretty

late in the day that germs could transmit through human contact. And

acceptance came only after an ugly battle of egos and the tragic death

of the doctor who discovered this phenomenon.


Flashback to 1846. A Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis had just

started his new job at a maternity clinic in Vienna. At the time,

maternity wards were awash with cases of childbed fever, a mysterious

illness that was killing an alarming number of new mothers. Many women

believed it was the doctors that brought death to them, and even called

it the "doctor's plague" . Soon, women preferred to deliver babies

through midwives than doctors.


Now, the Vienna hospital had two maternity wards: one staffed by male

doctors and their students, and one with female midwives. When Dr

Semmelweis arrived, he found that the number of deaths in the first

ward was almost twice as much as the latter. He tried to come up with

an explanation: was it the different positions women gave birth in?

Maybe it was the embarrassment of being examined by a male doctor? Or

perhaps it was the priests and their ominous bells in the doctor's

clinic that rang in the fever? But nothing checked out.


Then, one day, Dr Semmelweis was told that a colleague had fallen ill

and died after performing an autopsy on a victim of childbed fever.

This turned out to be the doctor's eureka moment.



Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis coronavirus


A portrait of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. Photo: Everett Collection

Historical / Alamy Stock Photo




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There was one major difference between the routines at doctor's clinic

and the midwives' clinic: the doctors performed autopsies on women who

had died the day before. It was only after the autopsies that they

examined women in labour and delivered babies. The midwives, on the

other hand, did not perform any autopsies. Dr Semmelweis theorised that

cadaverous particles-microscopic particles from the corpses-would

transfer from doctors' hands to the pregnant women, who would then fall

victim to the same disease. If he got rid of the particles, could he

potentially eliminate the disease? He took a chance and directed his

colleagues to start cleaning their hands and medical instruments with a

chlorinated lime solution. Almost immediately, cases of childbed fever

dropped. He was right!


A few years later, he presented his hypothesis at the prestigious

Vienna Medical Society. But his theory was met with harsh criticism,

even rejection. Doctors saw it as an attack on their hygiene practises.

'How could doctors be killers?' They rejected his theories. Not that Dr

Semmelweis was a ray of sunshine about his discovery. He hurled abuses

at doctors who questioned his ideas and even refused to publish his

findings for a long time.


Despite the clear reduction in deaths, the Vienna hospital soon went

back to their old ways. Deeply disheartened, Semmelweis moved to Pest

in Hungary. There too he worked at a maternity ward, implemented a

similar hand-washing practice and brought down maternal mortality

rates. But none of this brought him redemption and his ideas continued

to be shunned.


In the end, the constant dismissal of his discovery drove him to

outrage, and many believed he began losing his mind. In 1865 , he was

admitted into an asylum and just 14 days later was found dead, possibly

after being severely beaten by guards. Accounts suggest he died of

sepsis, caused by infected wounds.


As it turns out, Dr Semmelweis was a man way ahead of his times. In the

years to come, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister (yes, Listerine is named

after him) brought concepts like the Germ Theory and antiseptic surgery

to the forefront. These theories finally validated Dr Semmelweis' work,

earning him immense praise years after his death. And today, almost 170

years later, here we are, taking his advice more seriously than ever.