1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Semmelweiss, Ignatz Philipp

SEMMELWEIS, IGNATZ PHILIPP (1818-1865), Hungarian physician, was born at Buda on the 1st of July 1818, and was educated at the universities of Pest and Vienna. At first he intended to study law, but soon abandoned it for medicine; and such was his promise that, even as an undergraduate, he attracted the attention of men like Joseph Skoda and Carl Rokitansky. He graduated M.D. at Vienna in 1844, and was then appointed assistant professor in the maternity department, under Johann Klein. In Klein's time the deaths in this department from what was then known as " puerperal fever " became portentous, the ratio being rarely under 5.03 and sometimes exceeding 7.45%. Between October 1841 and May 1843, of 5139 parturient women 829 died; giving the terrible death-rate of 16%, not counting those of patients transferred to other wards. It was observed that this rate of mortality prevailed in the students' clinic; in the midwives' clinic it ruled much lower. Semmelweis found no satisfactory explanation of this mortality in such causes as overcrowding, fear, mysterious atmospheric influences or even contaminated wards; yet that the cause lay in some local conditions he felt certain. The patients would die in rows, others escaping; and women delivering before arrival, or prematurely, would escape. At last, he tells us, the death of a colleague from a dissection wound, "unveiled to my mind an identity" with the fatal puerperal cases; and the beginning of a scientific pathology of septicaemia was made. The students often came to the lying-in wards from the dissecting room, their hands cleansed with soap and water only. In May 1847 Semmelweis prescribed ablutions with chlorinated lime water: in that month the mortality rate stood at 12.24%; before the end of the year it had fallen to 3.04, and in the second year to 1.27; thus even surpassing the results in the midwives' clinic. Skoda and other eminent physicians were convinced by these results (Zeitschrift d. k. k. Gesellschaft der Ärtzte in Wien, J. vi. B. i. p. 107). Klein however, apparently blinded by jealousy and vanity, supported by other reactionary teachers, and aided by the disasters that then befell the Hungarian nation, drove Semmelweis from Vienna in 1849. Fortunately, in the following year Semmelweis was appointed obstetric physician at Pest in the maternity department, then as terribly afflicted as Klein's clinic had been; and in his six years' tenure in office he succeeded, by antiseptic methods, in reducing the mortality to 0.85%. Semmelweis was slow and reluctant as an author, or no doubt his opinions would have obtained an earlier vogue; moreover, he was not only tender-hearted but also irascible, impatient and tactless. Thus it cannot be said that the stupidity or malignity of his opponents was wholly to blame for the tragical issue of the conflict which brought this man of genius within the gates of an asylum on the 20th of July 1865. Strange to say, he brought with him into this retreat a dissection wound of the right hand, and on the 17th of the following August he died, a victim of the very disease for the relief of which he had already sacrificed his health and fortune.

His chief publication was Die Ätiologie der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers (Vienna, 1861). There are biographies by Hegar (Freiburg, 1882), Bruck (Vienna and Tischen, 1887), Duka (Hertford, 1882), Grosse (Vienna, 1898) and Schürer von Waldheim (Vienna, 1905). For the relations in the order of discovery of Semmelweis to Lister see Lister.

 (T. C. A.)