Question: What did Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis have in common with Hollywood legend Fred Zinnemann, four-time Oscar-winning director of such classics as High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man for All Seasons?
They shared a common interest in Dr. Semmelweis. Indeed, Mr. Zinnemann’s first Academy Award was for That Mothers Might Live, the 1938 Best Short Film winner devoted to the Hungarian physician.
And with flu season well underway and the populace engaging in unprecedented furious hand washing in an effort to ward off illness, now seems a good time to reflect on the life of Dr. Semmelweis (1818-1865), who is often called “the savior of mothers,” but also might legitimately be known as “the father of hand washing.”
A commemorative plaque in the main medical lecture hall at Semmelweis University in Budapest tells the story: While the school’s namesake was working in the maternity clinic at Vienna General Hospital in 1847, he had the then-revolutionary insight that it was a bad practice for interns to go straight from performing autopsies to doing pelvic exams without washing their hands. He introduced mandatory hand washing with a chlorinated lime solution, and mortality from puerperal fever was drastically reduced.
This was the prebacteriologic era, however, and the Viennese medical establishment took umbrage at the notion that physicians could transmit disease via their gentlemanly hands. Dr. Semmelweis’ publications on antisepsis were greeted with reactions ranging from indifference to ridicule. He was eventually dismissed from the hospital and hounded back to his native Budapest. There, as the plaque relates, he “began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers.”
His medical colleagues and family believed he was losing his mind, a distinct possibility given that tertiary syphilis was an occupational hazard of medical practice in public hospital maternity wards in that pre-glove era. Under the ruse of a request that he inspect a new hospital ward, Dr. Semmelweis was tricked into involuntary commitment to a Vienna mental hospital. There, he died just 14 days later, “possibly after being severely beaten by guards,” according to the university plaque.
His reputation was rehabilitated only years later, when Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease provided a mechanistic explanation for the striking clinical success of Dr. Semmelweis’ hand-washing program.