See Inside August 2010


A rise in maternity ward deaths led one physician to discover the importance of hand washing

IN THE MID-1840s Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis saw with alarm that 15 percent of new mothers in his Vienna General Hospital were dying of an illness called puerperal fever. Semmelweis was desperate to prevent the illnesses, but he didn't know how. As he pondered the problem, he learned that his friend, forensic pathologist Jakob Kolletschka, had died from what sounded like the same illness. It happened only a few days after a student accidentally pricked Kolletschka with a scalpel that had been used to dissect a cadaver.

The news gave Semmelweis pause. Medical students at his hospital would routinely go right from the morgue to the maternity ward without ever washing their hands. Were they carrying an infection to the mothers? Was that why they were dying? Could hand washing help?

This is only a preview. Get the rest of this article now!

Select an option below:

Customer Sign In

*You must have purchased this issue or have a qualifying subscription to access this content

It has been identified that the institution you are trying to access this article from has institutional site license access to Scientific American on
Click here to access this article in its entirety through site license access.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Scientific American Mind Digital

Get 6 bi-monthly digital issues
+ 1yr of archive access for just $9.99

Hurry this offer ends soon! >


Email this Article


Next Article