Bacterial contamination and the “Semmelweis reflex”

La Vie et l’Oeuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis”. This is the title used by Louis Ferdinand Céline to discuss his thesis for his Degree in Medicine in 1924. The work would later be published in 1952 under the simpler title of “Semmelweis”.

But who was Dr Semmelweis?

Born in Hungary, he graduated in Medicine from the famous Viennese Medical School in 1846 and became a doctor of surgery and obstetrics. He is remembered for an extraordinary insight: identifying failure to wash the hands thoroughly as the cause of the spread of puerperal fever.

Deaths from puerperal fever

Semmelweis had noticed that in the clinic where he worked, and where young doctors went straight from dissecting corpses to examining women who had just given birth, the incidence of deaths from puerperal fever stood at around 10%.

Semmelweis was haunted by these frequent deaths, but what puzzled him most was the observation that in another ward of the same hospital, run not by doctors but exclusively by midwives, the mortality rate from puerperal fever was ten times lower.


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