Have You Washed Your Hands Today?

Chances are that you have never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who was born July 1, 1818.  Yet if not for him, many of us might not be alive today… or might never have been born.

In the mid-1800s, there were two maternity clinics in Vienna, Austria.  While one had a maternal mortality rate of less than 4 percent, the other’s was more than 10 percent.  In other words, one in 10 women who gave birth in that clinic died after childbirth.  Shockingly, even women who delivered in the street had a higher survival rate than those admitted to the clinic.

Semmelweis, an assistant at the clinic, wracked his brains trying to determine the cause of this puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”).  Both clinics had the same climates, procedures, religious practices, and populations.  The only difference was that this clinic’s doctors also performed autopsies, while the safer clinic employed only midwives.

Semmelweis argued that cadaverous particles left on the hands of the doctors were fatally infecting the women.  He advocated that physicians wash their hands between examinations.  Indeed, after he implemented this practice, the mortality rate dropped 90 percent.

But Semmelweis’ peers were furious.  The concept of germs had not yet been discovered.  At the time, disease was attributed to miasma and bad humours.  The medical community refused to believe that the solution to high mortality rates could be so simple.  Physicians throughout Europe were insulted and offended that they should have to wash their hands, which they didn’t normally do.  Semmelweis himself could offer no scientific explanation for his recommendation.

Semmelweis lost his position and was ostracized by the medical community.  (After he departed the clinic, hand-washing was abandoned and mortality rates jumped six-fold.)  Semmelweis became increasingly obsessed with a hygiene crusade that fell on deaf ears, and he was ultimately committed to an asylum.  Ironically, he suffered an infection after being beaten by guards and he died 14 days after being admitted, at the age of 47.

More than 20 years later, Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease.  Hygiene and cleanliness are now critical in medical care around the world.  Today, Semmelweis is recognized as “the father of infection control” and a pioneer of antiseptic procedures.  And the term “Semmelweis Reflex” refers to the human tendency to reject new knowledge that contradicts established beliefs.

At Agilent, we pride ourselves on our ability to see beyond the limits of the possible.  Some of our greatest technological innovations have resulted from breaking the boundaries of accepted science, including:

  • The Agilent Cary 620 FTIR Spectrometer Microscope, which replaces a building-sized particle accelerator with a bench-top instrument
  • The Agilent 5100 ICP-OES, which runs 55 percent faster on 50 percent less gas by running axial and radial analyses at the same time
  • The Agilent 4200 MP-AES, which runs entirely on air

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