What happened at Vienna's Allgemeines Krankenhaus after Semmelweis's contract as Assistant in the First Maternity Division was terminated?

P. P. JADRAQUE, K. C. CARTER
  • Epidemiology and Infection, May 2017, Cambridge University Press
  • DOI: 10.1017/s0950268817000875

What is it about?

Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis is famous for dramatically reducing puerperal mortality by requiring providers to wash their hands with chlorinated products before examining or attending women. There is the myth that, after Semmelweis was removed from his post as assistant, puerperal mortality returned to its former high levels. We analyze the available data and show that his successors maintained a relatively low mortality rate roughly consistent with the rate Semmelweis himself achieved. The opposition he encountered had other sources than doubts about the effectiveness of the chlorine washings.

Why is it important?

We, modern physicians, think that our medicine is better than is that of our predecessors because it is based on scientific evidence. This evidence tells us which procedures improve the survival of our patients and reduce their suffering. We have evidence in such high regard that we classify it as strong, moderate and weak - the latter more reliable than the opinion of experts. But is this really so? Historical facts suggest that this is not the case. Just a few years ago, Nobel Prize awarded Stanley Prusiner was marginalized to such an extent that even his wife felt the pressure and his claims about prions ignored for a decade, resulting in 226 preventable deaths. Opposing, this paper shows that, in the 19th Century, in Vienna, ‘lack of evidence’ did not prevent doctors of the time from applying the measure that we, nowadays, know is the correct one to prevent childbed fever, the disinfection of hands.

Perspectives

Pablo Jadraque

We, modern physicians, think that our medicine is better than is that of our predecessors because it is based on scientific evidence. This evidence tells us which procedures improve the survival of our patients and reduce their suffering. We have evidence in such high regard that we classify it as strong, moderate and weak - the latter more reliable than the opinion of experts. But is this really so? Historical facts suggest that this is not the case. Just a few years ago, Nobel Prize awarded Stanley Prusiner was marginalized to such an extent that even his wife felt the pressure and his claims about prions ignored for a decade, resulting in 226 preventable deaths. Opposing, this paper shows that, in the 19th Century, in Vienna, ‘lack of evidence’ did not prevent doctors of the time from applying the measure that we, nowadays, know is the correct one to prevent childbed fever, the disinfection of hands.

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http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s0950268817000875

The following have contributed to this page: Pablo Jadraque

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