Ignaz Semmelweis was born Semmelweis Ignac Fulop on July 1, 1818 In Taban, Hungary. His father was a shopkeeper and he had four older siblings. During his youth, he studied at the Catholic Gymnasium of Buda.
In 1835, he enrolled at the University of Pest and graduated in 1837 with a degree in law. His father encouraged him to become a government official and he traveled to Vienna in order to apply for the law school there. However, he decided to enroll at the medical school instead, a decision that his father decided to support eventually.
In 1839, Semmelweis returned to the city of Pest, where he continued studying medicine at the local university. In 1841, he decided to move back to Vienna, where he studied at the Second Vienna Medical School. There, he was finally satisfied since the school incorporated both lab and bedside medicine into its curriculum. He also studied under prominent teachers, including Josef Skoda and Carl von Rokitansky.
In 1844, he completed his doctoral dissertation on the subject of botanical dissection and graduated that same year with a Magister degree. For the next two years, he continued studying under Skoda, focusing on surgical techniques and diagnostic methods.
In 1846, he was given a position at the Vienna General Hospital as a surgical assistant. His first important research was on the topic of puerpal fever, an affliction that his colleagues believed was non-preventable. He was particularly spurred by the fact that two obstetrical clinics at the hospital had different mortality rates from the fever, with one having a mortality rate of 2.03% and the other 13.1%.
In 1847, his friend Jakob Kolletschka died from an infection after his finger was punctured by a knife that had been used in a postmortem examination. Semmelweis performed an autopsy on his friend and discovered signs of infection similar to that of the many women dying of puerpal fever. Semmelweis subsequently proposed that the cause of the high prevalence of the disease in the one clinic was due to students carrying infectious particles on their hands. This was a bold claim, given that germ theory was not yet accepted and most of his colleagues believed diseases manifested spontaneously.
Despite resistance and harassment by his colleagues, Semmelweis implemented a system where students would wash their hands in chlorinated lime between examining corpses and live patients. Afterwards, the high mortality rate in the second clinic dropped from 13.1% to only 2.38%, strongly suggesting that he was correct. He published his findings, but they were met with strong criticism since they went against the school of thought at the time.
In 1848, Semmelweis began requiring that all medical instruments used in his department be cleaned in the same chlorinated solution prior to reuse. The instances of puerpal fever plummeted to the point where it was highly rare and his supervisor, Josef Skoda, proposed an investigation to study the results. Unfortunately, the conservative university heads denied the proposal and ended up firing Semmelweis in 1849.
In 1850, he made numerous presentations before the Imperial and Royal Academy of Sciences on the subject of sanitation in hospitals, but he was again met with much criticism. He retreated to Pest, Hungary, where he worked in the maternity ward at St. Rochus Hospital. There, he implemented the same hand washing technique, reducing occurrences of puerpal fever to only 0.85%.
By that time, the results of his system were too clear to deny and hospitals throughout Hungary began adopting antiseptic procedures. In his free time, he married a woman with whom he had five children and started his own private clinic in 1857. In 1855 he was appointed chair of theoretical and practical midwifery at the University of Pest.
In 1861, Semmelweis published a book on his discoveries regarding sanitation. The book was entitled "Die Atiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers" and met a great deal of skepticism from foreign countries, including Austria. He continued to defend his theory unsuccessfully over the next several years.
In July of 1865, Semmelweis suffered a supposed nervous breakdown. He began experiencing dementia and his family committed him to an insane asylum, where he died on August 13, 1865. After his death, his theories were verified by other physicians, including Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister. It is unfortunate that he was unable to see the transformation of medicine that occurred after the acceptance of germ theory.