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The Catholic Encyclopedia

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

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Physician and discoverer of the cause of puerperal fever, b. Ofen (Buda), 1 July, 1818; d. at Vienna, 13 August, 1865. The son of a German merchant, he became a medical student at Vienna in 1837, and after he had taken a philosophical course at Pesth, continued his medical studies there, obtaining his degree in medicine at Vienna on 21 April, 1844, as obstetrician on 1 August, 1844, and as surgeon on 30 November, 1845. On 27 February, 1846, he was made assistant at the first obstretrical clinic of Vienna, and on 10 October, 1850, lecturer on obstetrics. A few days after this appointment, for reasons unknown, he removed to Pesth where he was made head physician at the hospital of St. Roch on 20 March, 1851, and on 18 July, 1852, was appointed regular professor of theoretical and practical obstetrics. Early in 1865 the first signs of mental trouble appeared, and on 31 July he was taken to the public insane asylum near Vienna where he died from blood-poisoning. At the end of May, 1847, Semmelweis made the assertion that the terrible endemic at the Vienna hospital among lying-in women was caused by infection from the examining physicians, who had previously made pathological dissections, or who had come into contact with dead bodies without thorough cleansing afterwards. After Semmelweis had introduced the practice of washing the hands with a solution of chloride of lime before the examination of lying-in women, the mortality sank from 18 percent to 2.45 percent. He also soon formed the opinion that not only infection from septic virus caused puerperal fever but that it also came from other causes of putridity. His dislike of public speaking or of writing was probably the cause why the recognition he deserved was so long in coming and why his views were misunderstood. Many scholars, among them the doctors of the Academy of Paris and even Rudolph Virchow at Berlin, regarded him unfavourably. The petty persecution and malice of his opponents excited in Semmelweis a sensitiveness that increased from year to year. The first account of his discovery was published by Professor Ferdinand Hebra in December, 1847, in the journal of the Imperial and Royal Society of Physicians of Vienna (December, 1847), followed by a supplementary statement from the same physician in April, 1848. In October, 1849, Professor Josef Skoda delivered an address upon the same subject in the Imperial and Royal Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, Semmelweis had neglected to correct the papers of these friends of his, and thus failed to make known their mistakes, so that the inference might be drawn that only infection from septic virus caused puerperal fever. It was not until 15 May, 1850, that Semmelweis could bring himself to give a lecture upon his discovery before the Society of Physicians; this address was followed by a second on 18 June, 1850. The medical press noticed these lectures only in a very unsatisfactory manner. In 1861 he published his work: "Die Aetiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers" (Vienna), in which he bitterly attacked his supposed and real opponents. It was not until after his death that Semmelweis found full recognition as the predecessor of Lister and the pioneer in antiseptic treatment. Besides the above he wrote: "Zwei offene Briefe an Dr. Josef Späth und Hofrat Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Scanzoni" (Pesth, 1861); "Offener Brief an sämtliche Professoren der Geburtshiefe" (Ofen, 1862).

HEGAR, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (Freiburg, 1862); GROSSE, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (Leipzig and Vienna, 1898); SCHÜRER VON WALDHEIM, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (Vienna, 1905).


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Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.

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