The Myth and Cult of Ignaz Semmelweis: Constructing History of Science during the 20th Century

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Benedek Varga

20 Oct 2009, Oxford Brookes University, History of Medicine Seminar Series

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865) was a Hungarian physician who, in 1847, discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by improving on hand washing standards. As head of Vienna General Hospital's First Obstetrical Clinic, he reduced puerperal fever’s mortality rate to 1-3%. Although his achievements were welcomed by some, he also encountered serious criticism. Dismissed from his post in 1850, Semmelweis returned to Budapest where he worked as a university professor in obstetrics. But by the time of his death aged 47 in 1865, Semmelweis’ mental balance had collapsed, he had been deserted by his family and friends, and was soon forgotten.
From the 1890s onwards, however, a growing admiration of his achievements emerged. His discovery was regarded as one of the greatest breakthroughs in medical science, and Semmelweis was soon hailed as the emblematic figure of 19th century physicians: A doctor who sacrificed his life for the expecting mother, indeed the "saviour of mothers," an uncompromising hero who pitted sound and realistic arguments against the mystical beliefs of his contemporaries.
So how did this change in the perception of Semmelweis’ life and work come about? Was it merely the new age of bacteriology that shed fresh light on his theory that renewed his esteem? Benedek Varga adds a new perspective to the otherwise huge, albeit often romanticised, discussion of Semmelweis. Namely the view of how his achievements were used by the Hungarian medical community to strengthen their international reputation. Varga does not question the originality and importance of Semmelweis’s discovery, but locates his changing reputation within the context of late 19th century Hungarian medical society and medical politics.

Oxford Brookes University

Working Group in the History of Race and Eugenics

 

 

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