Today, we meet an unrewarded hero of medicine. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1847 Dr. Ignaz
Semmelweis's close friend, Jakob Kolletschka, cuts
his finger while he's doing an autopsy. Kolletschka
soon dies of symptoms like those of puerperal
That gets Semmelweis's attention. Puerperal fever
is killing 13 percent of the women who give birth
in his hospital. The death rate is driving him
nuts. He can't figure it out. A nearby obstetric
hospital, run by midwives, loses only two percent
of its patients to fever.
No one has connected germs with disease yet. The
first hint of that connection will come from
England six years later. Lister won't show us how
to kill germs for another 18 years.
Semmelweis is a Hungarian doctor teaching medicine
in Vienna. He notices that students move between
the dissection room and the delivery room without
washing their hands. On a hunch, he sets up a
policy. Doctors must wash their hands in a chlorine
solution when they leave the cadavers. Mortality
from puerperal fever promptly drops to two percent.
Now things grow strange. Instead of reporting his
success at a meeting, Semmelweis says nothing.
Finally, a friend publishes two papers on the
method. By now, Semmelweis has started washing
medical instruments as well as hands.
As outside interest grows, we begin to understand
Semmelweis's silence. The hospital director feels
his leadership has been criticized. He's furious.
He blocks Semmelweis's promotion. The situation
gets worse. Viennese doctors turn on this Hungarian
Finally, he goes back to Budapest. There he brings
his methods to a far more primitive hospital. He
cuts death by puerperal fever to less than one
percent. He does more. He systematically isolates
causes of death. He autopsies victims. He sets up
control groups. He studies statistics.
Finally, in 1861, he writes a book on his methods.
The establishment gives it poor reviews. Semmelweis
grows angry and polemical. He hurts his own cause
with rage and frustration.
In 1865 he suffers a mental breakdown. Friends
commit him to a mental institution. There -- as
though to close the circle on his brief 47-year
life -- he cuts his finger. In days, he dies of the
very infection that killed his friend Kolletschka
and from which he's saved thousands of mothers.
That same year Joseph Lister begins spraying a
carbolic acid solution during surgery to kill
germs. In the end, it's Lister who gives our
unhappy hero his due. He says, "Without Semmelweis,
my achievements would be nothing."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds