Friday Story Time: Germophobes

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because, really, does a great story need a reason? Here’s this week’s tidbit:

Ignaz Semmelweis was a hungarian obstetrician working in Vienna in the 1840s. At that time, childbirth was a dangerous business. In the supposedly-advanced maternity ward of Vienna General Hospital, almost one in five women died during or after labor.

It was safer to give birth in the other ward of the hospital, where the midwives worked. It was safer to give birth at home. In fact, it was probably safer to give birth in the muddy ditch outside than inside Ward 1. And everyone knew it. They blamed it on poisonous gas that somehow seeped into the rooms and affected some patients more than others.

Soon after he began working there, Ignaz went in search of a better explanation. And he found that the maternity ward was right next door to the autopsy room. Then he noticed that the sores on women who’d died after childbirth were similar to the sores on a doctor who’d died after cutting himself during an autopsy.

Ignaz theorized that a “miasma” from the dead bodies was being transferred to the living. When he made all doctors sterilize their hands before working in the maternity ward, deaths dropped dramatically.

Only one problem… the senior doctors didn’t believe Ignaz. They publicly rejected his findings, goaded him into resigning, and went back to their unwashed criss-crossing between autopsies and births. Death rates skyrocketed again.

Ignaz got a job Budapest, where it soon became much safer to give birth.

But Ignaz was rather angry about other doctors ignoring his findings. He wrote increasingly furious letters, calling them murderers. He fell into depression, and may have shown signs of early dementia. In 1965, Ignaz was tricked into entering a psychiatric ward, where — after possibly being beaten by orderlies — he died two weeks later.

Louis Pasteur took up Ignaz’s fight in the 1860s and 70s, with more success.

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