On May 15, 1850, a prickly Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis stepped up to the podium of the Vienna Medical Society’s lecture hall. It was a grand and ornately decorated room where some of medicine’s greatest discoveries were first announced. The evening of May 15 would hardly be different — even if those present (and many more who merely read about it) did not acknowledge Semmelweis’s marvelous discovery for several decades.
Ignaz Semmelweis, circa 1860. Photo via Wikimedia
What, exactly, was the doctor’s advice to his colleagues on that long ago night? It could be summed up in three little words: wash your hands!
At this late date, we all expect our doctors to wash their hands before examining us or performing an operation in order to prevent the spread of infection. Surprisingly, physicians did not begin to acknowledge the lifesaving power of this simple act until 1847
It was then that Dr. Semmelweis began exhorting his fellow physicians at the famed Vienna General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) to wash up before examining women about to deliver babies. His plea was far more than aesthetic; it was a matter of life and death and helped to prevent a deadly malady known as “childbed” or puerperal (from the Latin words for child and parent) fever.