Ignaz Semmelweis and the War on Handwashing


Ignaz Semmelweis washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before operating. Bettman/Contributor/Getty Images

Ignaz Semmelweis made a connection between hand hygiene and the prevention of childbed fever in the 19th century. He wasn’t taken seriously then, but today he’s known as everything from the father of infection control to the conqueror of childbed fever.

Tracy's Research:

  • Markel, Howard. “In 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives with three words: wash your hands.” PBS NewsHour. 5/15/2015. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/ignaz-semmelweis-doctor-prescribed-hand-washing
  • Semmelweis Society International. “Dr. Semmelweis’ Biography.” http://semmelweis.org/about/dr-semmelweis-biography/
  • Best, M and D. Neuhauser. “Ignaz Semmelweis and the birth of infection control.” BMJ Quality & Safety. Vol. 13, Issue 3. http://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/13/3/233
  • Nuland, Sherwin B. and Richard Horton. “‘The Fool of Pest’: An Exchange.” The New York Review of Books. 3/25/2004. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2004/03/25/the-fool-of-pest-an-exchange/
  • World Health Organization. “Religious and cultural aspects of hand hygiene.” From WHO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care: First Global Patient Safety Challenge Clean Care Is Safer Care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143998/
  • World Health Organization. “4Historical perspective on hand hygiene in health care.” From HO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care: First Global Patient Safety Challenge Clean Care Is Safer Care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK144018/
  • Ataman, Ahmet Dogan et al. “Medicine in stamps-Ignaz Semmelweis and Puerperal Fever.” Journal of the Turkish-German Gynecological Association. Vol. 14, No. 1. 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3881728/
  • Loudon I (2013). Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis’ studies of death in childbirth. JLL Bulletin: Commentaries on the history of treatment evaluation (http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/articles/ignaz-phillip-semmelweis-studies-of-death-in-childbirth/)
  • Bauer, Julius. “The Tragic Fate of Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis.” Presented before the Barlow Society for the History of Medicine in Los Angeles on December 7, 1961. Printed in California Medicine, 1962. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1575625/pdf/califmed00155-0023.pdf
  • Lane, Hilary J. et al. “Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894) and Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818–1865): Preventing the Transmission of Puerperal Fever.” American Journal of Public Health. June 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2866610/
  • Hallett, Christine. “The Attempt to Understand Puerperal Fever in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: The Influence of Inflammation Theory.” Medical History. Vol. 49, No. 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1088248/
  • Holmes, Oliver W. “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever.” Read Before the Boston Society for Medical Improvement. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015059415961;view=1up;seq=513
  • Coehn, Paul and Brenda Cohen. “The Semmelweis Medical Historical Museum in Budapest: Probing into the History of Medicine.” Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 30, No. 6 (March / April 2001). Via JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42992166
  • Tulodziecki, Dana. “Shattering the Myth of Semmelweis.” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 80, No. 5 (December 2013). Via JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/673935
  • Carter, K. Codell and George S. Tate. “The Earliest-Known Account of Semmelweis’s Initiation of Disinfection at Vienna’s Allgemeines Krankenhaus.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 65, No. 2 (SUMMER 1991). Via JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44442613
  • Carter, K. Codell et al. “Five Documents Relating to the Final Illness and Death of Ignaz Semmelweis.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 1995). Via JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44444549

Topics in this Podcast: medical history, European history, 19th century, biographies