Four-year-old Johnny was eating a hot dog when he dropped it on the floor. He quickly picked it up and was about to take another bite when his mom said, “No, Johnny, you can’t eat that now, it has germs.” Johnny pondered the thought a moment and replied, “Jesus, germs, and Santa Claus – that’s all I ever hear about and I haven’t seen one of ’em yet!”
His name was Ignaz Semmelweis. He was a Jew born in Hungary in the year 1818. From a wealthy family, Ignaz attended and graduated medical school at the top of his class. But being a Jew, he was prohibited from occupying any of the top medical positions, so instead was shipped off to head up a women’s medical clinic, and it was there that he made a discovery that would one day save countless lives. Here’s what happened:
The Vienna Women’s Clinic was primarily a place for expectant mothers to go to and give birth. It was divided into two sections: one for those expectant ladies who were from the wealthier homes and staffed by doctors and the other for those expectant ladies who were from the poorer homes and staffed by mid-wives. Over time, almost ten times as many mothers who gave birth were dying at the hands of doctors than were at the hands of the mid-wives. The cause of death was puerperal fever or more commonly known as childbed fever. There are three stages: swollen abdomen, multiple abscesses, high fever, and then death.(back)
Figuring out as to why the deadly difference became the life cause of Dr. Semmelweis. However, try as he would, nothing seemed to work. First, he thought it might be the position of the labouring mother (women with the doctors laid on their back while women with the mid-wives laid on their side). So he requested that the doctors have their patients lay on their side, but the deaths on the physician’s side kept coming. Second, he thought it might be the potion (women with the doctors drank a high cost tea, while women with the mid-wives drank a common brew). So he requested that the doctors have their patients drink the common tea, but the deaths on the physician’s side kept coming. Third, he thought it might be the priests (because almost all the deaths were on the doctor’s side, he theorized that the local priest and his bell ringing so terrified the women after birth causing them to get the illness and die). So he requested that the doctors have the priests delay their coming and ditch the bells, but the deaths on the physician’s side kept coming.
Now totally frustrated, Ignaz Semmelweis took a leave of absence and returned home, hoping some time away would clear his head and perhaps give him a new perspective on the deadly medical mystery. And when he got back to the hospital, some sad, but life-saving news was awaiting him. While he was absent, a colleague of his had fallen ill and died from puerperal fever. This was a revelation – so childbed fever wasn’t something only women got in childbirth, but other people in the hospital could get it as well. And further, just before getting the fatal illness, the physician had been performing an autopsy on a mother who had passed away after giving birth and he had pricked his finger while doing the post mortem. (see insert)
(A side note. It was common practice back in those days for physicians to perform their own autopsies on patients they had lost to try and find out the cause.)
But Dr. Semmelweis believed he had now finally figured it out – the difference between the doctors and the mid-wives was not (position, potion, or priest, instead the doctors were doing autopsies and the mid-wives were not! And those cadaverous particles, little pieces of a corpse, that physicians were getting on their bare hands when they delivered the babies, these particles would get inside the women who then developed the disease and died. (He could have kicked himself for not seeing it earlier since he had been taught way back in Sabbath school that according to the Mosaic law, anyone touching a corpse becomes unclean – as the Bible says in Numbers 19:11-21.)
So Semmelweis ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands, not just with soaping up, but also with a chlorine lime solution – because after soap he could still smell the cadaver odour on them. (Chlorine, as we now know today, is about the best disinfectant there is.) And almost immediately, deaths from childbed disease plummeted by over 90 percent. However, doctors at the clinic did not take very kindly to Dr. Semmelweis finding, that they, the physicians, were the ones responsible for killing all these women – the medical field not knowing anything yet about germs. They just refused to believe that a little dirt on their hands could take the life of another human being. And these medical men especially hated washing their hands in chlorine lime; it was so very time-consuming and had such an obnoxious odour.
Nevertheless, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis became an evangelist for antiseptic surgery, as hand washing once again decreased and childbed death increased. He walked the corridors of the hospital pleading with the doctors to sterilize their hands. At staff meetings he broke into tears begging the physicians to follow his chlorine instructions. When it became apparent that he was being ignored inside, he took to the outside – day after day walking the city streets, looking for young women who were expecting and asking them to promise that when they got to the hospital, they would go the mid-wife and not the physician side – that it was a matter of life and death. But it was mostly to no avail. The good doctor became distressed and depressed, confused as to why no one would listen to him, as baby after baby went home without a mother.
Finally, when Dr. Semmelweis began to call them murderers, the doctors at the hospital had enough. The physicians convinced Mrs. Semmelweis that her husband had gone mad and that he needed to be put away. Together they plotted to have the two of them take a vacation to visit family at a distant location and when arriving, she was to tell her husband of a friend in a local hospital and could they visit her. (It was an insane asylum, and once inside two men in white coats grabbed Dr. Semmelweis and locked him up. He would never get out, dying two years later at age 49.) However, while there he did write a published book on his medical discovery, that few, if any read. But a fellow Jew did, by the name of Dr. Joseph Lister (Listerine), who, unlike Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, the medical world did listen to when it came to germs.
The bottom line? Another example of God’s promise to Abraham, that through his seed He would give men and women who would bless all of the world.