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The physician who discovered hand washing


As an obstetric assistant at the General Hospital in Vienna, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818-1865) noted that mortality rates were much lower in one obstetric clinic where cleanliness was much more evident. After requiring that all students and physicians must wash their hands before examining any patient, mortality dropped significantly. Unfortunately, significance of his observations was not generally accepted at the time.

Key Points

Editor's Note: Greed, hate, jealousy, bias, and competition-could describe Wall Street, correct? Yes, but this is not a new phenomenon. A 19th century vignette incorporates all of these traits and characteristics that together aided in the destruction of a great physician.-Dr. Medow

Semmelweis was born in a small town outside of Budapest, Hungary. In this rural setting, he developed a harsh Hungarian dialect that hampered him from speaking either fluent Hungarian or German. His accent would hinder him later in life.

Each division handled approximately 3,500 deliveries per year and was approximately the same size and housed in the same building on the same floor. The distinct difference between the two clinics was the mortality rate of women giving birth. In the first division, the mortality rate averaged 600 per year, whereas the second clinic had a much lower mortality rate of 60 per year, or one-tenth the amount of the first. The cause of these deaths was attributed to puerperal fever, otherwise known as childbed fever.

Making the connection

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