Nowadays, nearly everyone knows that hand washing prevents the spread of germs, but in the early 19th century, that wasn’t necessarily accepted as an absolute fact.
“At that time, people really didn’t know what caused disease,” said Philip Scherer, M.D., a UF radiology resident.
Scherer, a UF College of Medicine graduate from the class of 2010, presented the lecture, “The Art of Hand Washing: The Legacy of Ignaz Semmelweis,” on March 15, as part of the monthly History of Medicine lecture series.
Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician from the 1800s who specialized in surgery and obstetrics/gynecology, is known today as the “savior of mothers.” He is credited for finding in 1847that the incidence of puerperal fever, which typically afflicted women who recently gave birth, could be drastically reduced by the use of hand-washing standards in obstetrical clinics.
He made this important discovery while working as an assistant at the Obstetrics/Gynecology Clinic at Vienna General Hospital and ultimately mandated that wash their hands with chlorinated lime. The rate of mortality of new mothers, in turn, was reduced.
Sadly, however, when Semmelweis advocated his findings, he was ignored or ridiculed by his peers. He eventually was demoted and committed to a Viennese insane asylum, where he died at age 47 in 1865.
“So there was a tragic end for someone that had a profound effect on medical history,” Scherer said.
However, Semmelweis is regarded as a pioneer in antiseptic procedures today and posthumously he was recognized for his accomplishments. His image adorns Hungarian coins and stamps, and a medical school in Budapest is named in his honor.