Semmelweis

“I declare before God that you are a murderer and the history about ‘childbed fever’ would not be too unfair if it remembers you as a medical Nero.”

In May1847, the Viennese Gynecologist Ignaz Semmelweis found what became a problematic discovery: the reason for ‘child-bed fever’ – a disease that afflicted many women giving birth in hospitals – lied not in the bodily conditions of mothers and their course of birth but in doctor’s hands. For more than a year, Semmelweis screened doctor’s practices and compared them to those of midwives to reveal that the disease results from doctors not disinfecting their hands before assisting in birthing. He was right and hand hygiene has become the cornerstone measure against spreading of diseases.

But almost nobody believed the young Viennese doctor back in 1847. Instead, he became an object of derision and contempt because he insulted the medical profession. He called his opponents “murderers”, “medical Nero” or “dumb Turcs”. Those who believed him, and followed his instruction to disinfect their hands in the chlorine solution, were an exception. Theory of Science has offered and abundant analysis of Semmelweis’ failure pointing to scientific mistakes such as that Semmelweis did not use the microscope and could therefore not see the germs on doctor’s hands or that he failed to publish his results until 1858. Historians emphasized his unstable personality that should have made it difficult to take him seriously, some even suggesting pathological character of his temper, supported by the fact that Semmelweis died in an asylum.

Semmelweis’ failure together with his later celebration as a pioneer of hand hygiene is emblematic for the role of emotions in the truth production as we face it even 170 years after his controversial debate.  Semmelweis was placed on the side of accusations of medical birth control because he was at odds with the established medical truth of the time. In all European clinics of that time, the establishment of gynecology as a distinguished discipline aimed at improving birth care and, in all of them, childbed fever was a serious threat to this aim. By situating the origin of childbed fever in doctor’s hands, Semmelweis’ discovery implied medical responsibility for the disease.

That every truth is at odds with the knowledge we have accommodated as true before is the departing point of the book “In den Händen der Ärzte” that wants to offer a novel sight on the “pironeer of handhygiene” Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.