It is 1847 and the death rate among pregnant women in the obstetric clinics where physician Ignaz Semmelweis works is high. Puerperal fever, which is an infection of the female reproductive organs following childbirth, is a common cause of death and is almost seen as inevitable by medics at the time.
However, a worrying trend in the clinics which Semmelweis supervises in Vienna catches his eye.
After dealing with women so desperate to avoid one clinic that they would rather give birth in the street, Semmelweis decided to look into mortality rates.
He found that the student-run clinic had a much higher mortality rate from puerperal fever than the clinic run by midwives; sometimes three times higher.
Semmelweis came to the conclusion that the students carried something from the mortuary where they carried out autopsies, to the women they later examined. He ordered the students to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution before every examination. Almost immediately, the mortality rate fell from 18 percent to one percent.
Despite the successful hand-washing policy, Semmelweis could offer no acceptable medical explanation for its effectiveness. The idea that germs exist and cause infections was not developed at the time.
Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis's observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands. Semmelweis's practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist's research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.
After struggling for years to promote his hand-disinfection policies, Semmelweis was admitted to an insane asylum at the age of 47, and he died 14 days later after being beaten by the guards
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