Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis: The Hungarian Doctor beaten to death for promoting Handwashing

Despite his discovery that washing hands by doctors could save a patient’s life, Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweiss still ended his life in a mental institution and was beaten to death. 

Ignaz Semmelweis

The year was 1847 and the mortality rate among pregnant women in the hospital where Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis worked in Vienna, Austria, was very high. He was the head of the maternity ward at the Allgemeine Krankenhaus — the largest hospital in Vienna, Austria.

Ignaz Semmelweis
Ignaz Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865): The Hungarian doctor who was beaten to death in 1865 for promoting handwashing.

An infection of the female reproductive organs following childbirth, the puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) was a common cause of death and was almost seen as incurable by the medical practitioners at the time.  

An Accidental Discovery 

In Semmelweis’ hospital, one in six women died after childbirth of the fever. The symptoms were no different. After giving birth, the new mother would develop chills and then a fever after some hours. Subsequently, her abdomen would become swollen and excruciatingly painful. Within a few days, she would be dead, leaving a motherless child to the world. 

This incident was so common in the hospitals in Vienna that Semmelweis decided to make some findings on the cause of the high mortality rates.

In his research, the doctor discovered that pregnant women in a medical student-run clinic had a much mortality rate from puerperal fever, in fact, three times higher than clinics run by midwives.

Ignaz Semmelweis handwashing
Ignaz Semmelweis washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before operating. Bettmann/Corbis

Furthering his research, Semmelweis also discovered that the students carried “something” from the mortuary after conducting autopsies on dead bodies to the pregnant women they later examined. 

Some of the autopsies were also carried out on the women. The doctors and their medical students as well knew that when they opened the bodies, they would be met with a strong stench that made the new students vomit immediately.

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Afterward, they would observe the swollen and inflamed ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, as well as pools of puss all over the abdominal cavity. In plain words, the insides of the women had been ravaged. 

Saving Lives 

Ignaz Semmelweis then ordered and forced all of the doctors and students under him to wash their hands with the chlorinated lime solution before entering the maternity ward. True to his words, the mortality rate fell drastically from 18% to 1%.  

He didn’t know the reason for the success because the idea that germs existed and caused infections was non-existent at the time. In fact, the germ theory would remain in obscurity for 18 years until Louis Pasteur, a French biologist, microbiologist, and chemist, popularised it with his pasteurization method in 1865.


However, despite Ignaz Semmelweis’ compelling practical evidence, the doctors of the medical community in Vienna condemned and disregarded his theory. They stubbornly refused to entertain the idea, arguing that they could be hurting their patients. As a result, the Hungarian lost the respect of his colleagues and superiors alike and the whole scenario ruined his career which never recovered. 

Legacy and Death 

Ignaz Semmelweis struggled for years to promote his ground-breaking contribution to the field of medical hygiene through his hand-disinfection policies but was admitted to an asylum for mentally deranged people in 1865, where he was later beaten and died 14 days later. He was 47. 

Although many monuments and landmarks, even a university, are named after Semmelweis for his work on the theory of germs, he never lived to see his life’s work come to fruition.

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Further Reading

Davis, R. (2015, January 12). The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing And Briefly Saved Lives. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/12/375663920/the-doctor-who-championed-hand-washing-and-saved-women-s-lives 

Leighton, L. (2020, April 14). Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who discovered the disease-fighting power of hand-washing in 1847. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/ignaz-semmelweis-the-doctor-who-discovered-the-disease-fighting-power-of-hand-washing-in-1847-135528 

Markel, H. (2015, May 15). In 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives with three words: wash your hands. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/ignaz-semmelweis-doctor-prescribed-hand-washing 

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