Archive for May 22nd, 2014

May 22, 2014

Contemporary Reaction to Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis by Manu Ortega

Dr. Ignaz [ig-nahtsSemmelweis [zem-uhl-vahys] discovered in 1847 that hand-washing with a solution of chlorinated lime reduced the incidence of fatal childbed fever tenfold in maternity institutions. However, the reaction of his contemporaries was not positive; his subsequent mental disintegration led to him being confined to an insane asylum, where he died in 1865. His critics claimed his findings lacked scientific reasoning. The failure of the nineteenth-century scientific community to recognize Semmelweis’s findings, and the nature of the flawed critiques against him helped advance a positivist epistemology, leading to the emergence of evidence-based medicine.

To a modern reader, Semmelweis’s experimental evidence—that chlorine washings reduced childbed fever—seem obvious, and it may seem absurd that his claims were rejected on the grounds of purported lack of ‘scientific reasoning.’ His unpalatable observational evidence was only accepted when seemingly unrelated work by Louis Pasteur in Paris some two decades later offered a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’s observations: the germ theory of disease.

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