by Jeanette A. Strong


Every woman who has given birth in the last century owes a huge debt of gratitude to a doctor born in 1818 in Buda, Hungary and who died insane because the scientific world refused to accept his simple solution to a medical problem that was killing thousands of women every year.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was born July 1, 1818, and received his MD in 1844 in Vienna, where he was appointed to be an assistant at the Maternity Hospital. The hospital primarily served poor women or women in extreme circumstances, such as illegitimate births. Very soon, Semmelweis became distressed at the number of patients who died from puerperal infection, commonly known as childbed fever. Healthy women would come into the clinic, deliver their babies and, within a few days, be dead from childbed fever. Women who were able to give birth at home rarely died of childbed fever, while the disease was rampant in maternity hospitals all across Europe. The situation was so desperate that women would beg to give birth in the streets and be admitted to the hospital after the delivery. For some unknown reason, admission after the birth led to fewer deaths. Women who were forced to enter the hospital before delivery lived in a state of fear, terrified that they would not leave alive.

Most doctors considered childbed fever unpreventable, but Semmelweis’s tender heart was touched by the screams and moans of the dying women, and he decided to put all his energies into finding the cause and cure of childbed fever. He spent hundreds of hours autopsying the bodies of dead patients. After several months, he noticed that the death rate in Ward One, where doctors and medical students were in charge, was around 29%, while the death rate in Ward Two, where midwives were in charge, was only 3% (Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), p 369. As an experiment, the midwives and doctors changed wards for awhile, and the same death rates followed each group. The final clue came when a colleague of Semmelweis’s, Doctor Jakob Kolletschka, received a cut during the autopsy of a woman who had died of childbed fever. The cut became infected, and Doctor Kolletschka died in 1847 of puerperal infection. Semmelweis realized that something from the dead woman had infected his friend, and therefore something the medical students carried on their hands from one patient to another was causing the childbed fever. Doctors were carrying something from sick patients and dead bodies to healthy patients; men who were dedicated to healing were transmitting the disease themselves.

To Semmelweis, the solution became obvious. In May 1847, he ordered all doctors, students and midwives in the hospital to wash their hands thoroughly in chlorinated water before every examination or delivery. At the time, doctors usually washed their hands briefly after a delivery, but after an autopsy or examination of a pregnant woman, they would just wipe their hands off with a towel and go on to the next patient. When Semmelweis ordered the student doctors to wash their hands, many of them became outraged. He had the authority, however, and under his new rule, the death rate from childbed fever dropped to below 1%. Some of the younger doctors realized that Semmelweis was right about handwashing, but the more established doctors disparaged his findings. Many deliberately disobeyed the order to wash their hands, calling it “undignified”. Year after year Semmelweis provided clear proof that handwashing saved lives, and year after year he was ridiculed and criticized in scientific journals, and by leading obstetricians in Europe. He was eventually fired from his job at the hospital because of his insistence on handwashing, against the orders of his superior.

In 1861, Semmelweis published his principal work, The Cause, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever, in which he carefully explained, with years of data to prove his theory, how handwashing by doctors would save thousands of lives every year. He sent copies of his book to all prominent obstetricians and medical societies he knew, but the general reaction was hostile. “The weight of authority stood against his teachings”. (Imre Zoltan, “Semmelweis, Ignaz Philipp”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1981 ed.) Prominent scientists and physicians, many of whom had published their own books on childbed fever, actively ridiculed his ideas. Any doctor who supported Semmelweis’s ideas was in danger of losing his own job.

After years of attempting to persuade other physicians to follow his ideas, and knowing that thousands of women were dying needlessly every year, the strain proved too much for Semmelweis. He was admitted to a mental hospital in Vienna in August of 1865, after suffering a mental breakdown, and died on August 13, 1865, of puerperal infection, from an infected cut on his right hand. The same disease he had fought all his life finally killed him. Semmelweis died feeling defeated by the very same medical establishment which had taken the Hippocratic oath, vowing “The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of my patients. . . and not for their hurt. . .” The people who were supposed to be dedicated to saving lives were instead more committed to preserving their own entrenched academic and political interests. Because doctors and scientists ignored the clear evidence presented to them, hundreds of thousands of women died needlessly. It took many years for doctors to become convinced of the necessity for cleanliness. Today, Semmelweis is hailed as a hero, the “Savior of mothers”. But we must never forget how long and hard he had to fight for his ideas, because they were not part of the “accepted” science of his day.

Today we see the same kind of irrational refusal by the scientific establishment to admit the facts from nature that support Creation. Editor