Prelims cum Mains Science & Tech

Celebrating a forgotten medical genius

The News

It’s not an uncommon fate for a pioneering scientist: languishing unrecognised in his time before dying in obscurity. But 200 years after he was born, the life-saving work of a Hungarian obstetrician is finally getting its due.

About Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865)

  • Born on July 1, 1818, Semmelweis joined the obstetrics department of Vienna’s general hospital in 1846, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards.
  • In 1847, his colleague died of septicaemia after carrying out an autopsy: Semmelweis surmised that dead bodies must hold invisible but potentially deadly “particles”.
  • Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions .
  • Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics.
  • Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands.
  • Hence instead of plaudits, Semmelweis suffered the wrath of the grandees of Vienna’s medical fraternity and in 1849 his contract was not renewed.
  • Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.
  • It was only at the end of the 19th century that Semmelweis’s reputation began to be rehabilitated after the discoveries of Pasteur, Robert Koch and Alexandre Yersin bore out his theories. Today he is considered the father of modern theories of hospital hygiene and sterilisation.

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