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Now & Then

How a Hungarian physician saved mothers all around the world

Back in 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis’ idea was rejected by the medical community. Today, he’s known as the “saviour of mothers”. With his work, he laid the foundation for our modern hospital hygiene and antisepsis.

Historical portrait of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis
Dr Ignaz Semmelweis

In 1847, it was just a few minutes’ walk down the hall from the pathology room to the new obstetrics ward in Vienna’s General Hospital, yet the two were worlds apart. The short distance separated life and death, sickness and health. As the doctors and students made their rounds, they had to draw on their training to switch from investigating one life ending to ushering in new life. Dr Semmelweis, however, had difficulty separating the two. Deeply troubled by the high rate of childbed fever and deaths at the new obstetrics ward – which averaged at 10% with peaks at 30% – he was convinced there lay a connection. Particularly, when he realised the other obstetrics ward in the hospital had a lower mortality rate.

Dr Ignaz Semmelweis believed medical staff unwittingly carried germs out of the pathology room on their hands, which then passed into the new obstetrics ward and caused postpartum infection in new mothers. Without the scientific means to prove his thesis, he took another approach in the form of a simple experiment. He placed a bowl of chlorinated lime solution between the pathology room and obstetrics ward and asked colleagues to wash their hands every time they passed. The results were dramatic and undeniable. The mortality rate dropped to 0.3%. Some months, he had no deaths at all.
Dr Küenburg and Prof Pittet at the Semmelweis conference in 2017
Dr Küenburg (on the left) and Prof Didier Pittet at the last Semmelweis Conference in Budapest
One man swimming against the stream

Today, the medical profession remembers Dr Semmelweis as the “saviour of mothers.” In Dr Semmelweis’s lifetime, however, acceptance from his contemporaries proved less forthcoming. Dr Bernhard Küenburg, President of Semmelweis Foundation, explains, “Of, course he had followers, or early adopters. But there were also colleagues who criticised him publicly, and privately introduced hand disinfection on their wards. Many so-called experts chose to live in denial, and the General Hospital in Vienna eventually terminated his position.”

Semmelweis returned to his native Hungary, introducing hand disinfection in two Budapest hospitals with similar success. When colleagues continued to mock him, he wrote open letters, accusing them of being responsible for the deaths of women and children. Finally, he was forcibly sent to an asylum where he died under mysterious circumstances.

His legacy can clearly be felt in hospital wards around the world today. Dr Küenburg emphasises, “Semmelweis’s work formed the basis for modern hospital hygiene and antisepsis. Before 1847, it was not yet clear that infection occurs mostly through the hands of the hospital staff. Semmelweis did not only lay the foundation for hand hygiene, he was one of the first to base his arguments on clinical evidence. That general antisepsis did not start in Austria and Hungary can only be owed to his enemies.”

Semmelweis’s reputation only began to recover decades later when Lister proved the existence of pathogens under a microscope. Pasteur and Koch followed closely with ground-breaking work on the germ theory of disease. So, finally, it was official. Dr Semmelweis was no “quack”, but a visionary. Today, there is a term – the Semmelweis reflex – connoting a kind of knee-jerk reaction to new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms.
Group picture of the participants of the last Semmelweis conference in 2017.
Participants of the last Semmelweis Conference in Budapest in March 2017
Carrying on Semmelweis’ legacy

Today, the Semmelweis Foundation carries on the doctor’s work and passion. Dr Küenburg explains, “Our primary objective is to raise awareness in the public and medical community about nosocomial infections and hand hygiene – and continue to contribute to safer hospitals and less infections.” The foundation often collaborates with WHO and organises an expert conference to connect professionals from Central and Eastern Europe with international colleagues. “By bringing experts from different countries together we hope to drive the topic hygiene forward. At our last Semmelweis Conference we hosted, for example, Prof Didier Pittet who is leading a worldwide campaign within WHO to make alcohol-based hand disinfection an international standard.”

2018 is the 200-year anniversary of Dr Semmelweis’s birth in Buda, Hungary. It also marks the 20-year point of HARTMANN’s presence in Hungary. Alíz Benko, Sales Manager, stresses that Semmelweis is not forgotten. Hungary commemorates his birthday every year, and his name adorns many institutes of higher education and conferences.

Hungary like many countries knows the advantages of hand hygiene, but an overburdened healthcare system makes it difficult to execute it optimally. HARTMANN seeks ways to help. Alíz elaborates, “Our Hand Hygiene Evolution Concept dovetails nicely with government initiatives, like the EFOP-2.2.18-17 for complex infrastructure improvements in the health care system. This helps hospitals to adopt hand hygiene improvement programmes, boosting health care workers’ compliance and ultimately patient safety.” The company also works with the Hand-in-Scan Company – which supports hand hygiene with a device to test how well hands have been disinfected. It’s called the Semmelweis Scanner. Semmelweis would be pleased.

2018 marks HARTMANN’s 200-year anniversary.

To commemorate this milestone, we have put together this series of articles. In it we show how our employees and partners contribute to advancing healthcare, as well as discussing trends and issues that affect the healthcare systems we serve.