Thursday, 12 July 2018

A Real Ladies’ Man

Around the corner from my place in Budapest there is a statue of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, a man to whom all women should be grateful. Semmelweis was the man who realised something that now seems obvious - that the death rate of women who had recently given birth could be reduced hugely if the women's doctors, when performing examinations, washed their hands between patients.

Sadly, Semmelweis's theory was rejected by his fellow practitioners, who demanded an explanation for his theory, rather than mere statistics - despite the fact that Semmelweis's results showed that, with his hand washing regime, the death rate among women who had recently given birth dropped to almost nothing. You would think they might have at least given it a try.

Poor Semmelweis. He actually cared about women. According to his Wikipedia entry, he said that their high death rate from puerperal fever "made me so miserable that life seemed worthless." Extraordinarily, rather than raising any questions in his colleagues' minds about how they did things, this intense concern of his made him so unpopular with the medical establishment that he was ridiculed, dismissed from his post and harassed by the Vienna medical community.

After his dismissal, Semmelweis moved back to Budapest where, outraged by the indifference of the medical profession, he began writing furious letters to prominent obstetricians. In social situations, according to Wikipedia "He turned every conversation to the topic of childbed fever". Eventually, he was committed to a mental asylum, where he was horribly treated. On 13 August, 1865, two weeks after being admitted, aged only 47, he died at the asylum on Lazarettengasse in Vienna, from a gangrenous wound. This wound was very likely caused by the beating he had received when, after realising that he had been tricked into entering an asylum, he tried to leave.

Wikipedia reports that theories about his mental condition suggest a form of Alzheimer's or third-degree syphilis, (many obstetricians, the Wikipedia article states, caught syphilis from their patients - perhaps if Semmelweis had appealed to his colleagues' self-interest by pointing out that they could avoid this danger to themselves, he might have had more success at persuading them of the merits of good hygiene). I don't think one has to look for anything so complicated to explain his mental decline. It seems to me that Semmelweis was a good, kind man who was driven mad by the stupidity and indifference of his colleagues and the knowledge that many, many deaths were very easily preventable if only he could persuade people to do one very simple thing. Semmelweis cared very much about women, and for that I admire him and wish he had not been made to suffer. I also wish that women had not gone on losing their lives in great numbers, entirely preventably, for years after his discovery, simply because the scientific establishment was too stubborn to accept a simple and sensible idea.

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