[Picture: Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis]
Puerperal Fever (or Childbed Fever) was a common and serious infection contracted by women during or shortly after childbirth or abortion. It was often fatal with mortality at 10%-35%.
During the year 1847, Austrian-Hungarian physician Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by use of hand washing standards in obstetrical clinics.
Semmelweis was the head of Obstetrical Clinic of Vienna General Hospital at the time and he noticed that the doctor wards had 3 times the mortality of midwife wards. He found that the doctors performed autopsies each morning on women who had died the previous days. Whereas the midwives were not required to do so. This led him to conclude an obvious connection between the autopsies and the spread of the fever.
After some experimentation with cleansing agents, Semmelweis ordered all doctors to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution before starting ward work. The mortality rate came down from 18% to 3% in the same year.
Semmelweis published his paper 1861 which, despite scientific proof, was criticized by his peers. Disease, according to scientific opinion of that time, was caused by imbalance of four humors in the body and doctors could not see how washing hands could affect the balance of the humors. Moreover, doctors were not too eager to take the blame for many of the previous deaths.
Much later, after his theory began to gain practice, Semmelweis came to be known as the ‘Savior of Mothers’.
It was not until 1870 when Louis Pasteur proposed the Germ Theory of Disease did the actual efficacy and mechanism behind cleansing and hygiene became evident.