The founder of hand antiseptic was a killer


In the 1800s, the story goes, there were two hospitals in Vienna nearly identical in every way, except that in one of them, women were dying at an appalling rate – for years. And no one could figure out why.

Ignaz Semmelweis was an obstetrician in the hospital where women were dying. What he realized was that labouring and post-partum women were dying because their doctors and medical students weren’t washing their hands before touching them.

It was only after relentlessly thinking about the extraordinary deaths that Ignaz realized he was the problem.

Turns out, the endemic cause of this tragic situation was cadaverous, infectious particles adhering to the hands of the doctors and students who worked with cadavers and labouring women.

Ignaz discovered that chloride antiseptic hand washings reduced the mortality rate to nearly zero in the hospital where he worked.

And yet, and yet it would take nearly twenty years before other doctors began to wash their hands.

No one believed him. The medical community rejected his findings. In fact, many doctors were appalled that he thought they should wash their hands. His painstaking research showed that hand washing reduced the incidence of childbed fever and death, but he couldn’t explain why.

“In consequence of my conviction I must affirm that only God knows the number of patients who went prematurely to their graves because of me. I have examined corpses to an extent equaled by few other obstetricians”.

The story of Semmelweis isn’t just about the history and importance of hand washing. It’s a story about taking responsibility, having the humility to see the truth and the choices available to each of us to make a difference in the world.

What would you do if you realized that your education, your actions, your behaviours or your attitude was killing people?

We need more people like Semmelweis, no doubt. People who care enough to look at themselves and the work they do, see problems, make a theory, support it,  figure out how to make things better – and do it again.