Weird History

One 19th-Century Doctor's Doomed Crusade To Get His Peers To Wash Their Hands 

Genevieve Carlton
Updated September 10, 2019 14.2k views 12 items

In the 19th century, physicians argued that Victorian hospitals offered modern, scientific care. But in Vienna, one doctor realized physicians were inadvertently ending the lives of their patients. That's because 19th-century medical practices did not include handwashing.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis spent years trying to convince other doctors to wash their hands after performing post-mortems. He proved that handwashing could save thousands of lives, and yet most doctors ignored his evidence. One stated it simply wasn't possible for doctors to harm their patients, as "a gentleman's hands are clean." Even after Semmelweis provided solid proof that washing hands and sanitized tools decreased the maternal mortality rate, doctors dismissed his findings. 

Just like other horrifying Victorian medical procedures, it's hard to imagine doctors refusing to wash their hands. But Semmelweis put his career on the line to promote handwashing. Here's the story of one doctor's doomed effort to convince his colleagues to practice basic hygiene.

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Photo: Borsos und Doctor/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Semmelweis Identified A Major Problem At His Hospital

On May 15, 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis gave a lecture in front of the prestigious Vienna Medical Society. Semmelweis, a doctor of obstetrics who worked at the Vienna General Hospital, reported the startling results of his recent maternal mortality investigation.

At his hospital, women either gave birth in the midwife ward or physician ward. In the 19th century, male doctors began to replace midwives in the birthing room. Doctors brought new medical techniques and advanced training, which many saw as an improvement over traditional midwives.

Semmelweis, however, had noticed a startling pattern: the mortality rate in the physician ward was several times higher than in the midwife ward.

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Photo: Hermann Walter/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Maternal Mortality Rate For Physician-Assisted Birth Was Nearly One In Five

At Vienna General Hospital, women who delivered their babies assisted by physicians had a much higher chance of losing their lives. In the physician ward, the maternal mortality rate was as high as 18%, and it never dropped below 13%. By comparison, the rate for women assisted by midwives remained around 2%.

Semmelweis wondered why the midwives saved so many more lives, especially since the doctors were using the latest medical techniques. He began to investigate the reasons women might be more likely to perish when a physician helped them give birth.

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Semmelweis Gathered Data To Investigate The Hospital's Situation

A trained physician, Semmelweis instantly put his medical education to use. He wanted to discover why the mortality rate skyrocketed in the physician ward. Semmelweis began by tabulating statistical data for several years at the hospital. The data supported Semmelweis's suspicion that women had a much higher rate in the physician ward. 

The same was true even outside of Semmelweis's hospital. Statistics for births performed at home in the mid-19th century remained below 1%. But in European and American maternity hospitals - which were often new and promised the most advanced medical treatment - women might be 20 times more likely to perish than during a home birth.

In fact, the rate increased when women began giving birth in hospitals.

New Mothers Were Perishing From An Infection

New mothers at the Vienna General Hospital and other maternity wards were perishing from an infection known as childbed fever, or puerperal fever. Women typically contracted it within three days of giving birth. The mothers suffered from a "great derangement of the vascular system," which could include abdominal discomfort, fever, and delirium. Caused by sepsis, it often led to abdominal abscesses and pus

Puerperal fever carried a high fatality rate in the 19th century, with as many as 80% of affected women succumbing to the malady.