The ‘Father of Handwashing’ Died a Cruel, Ironic Death

It was impossible to wash away the jealousy and contempt of his colleagues
The ‘Father of Handwashing’ Died a Cruel, Ironic Death

There are plenty of badass things to be known as “the father” of. Walter Camp, Father of Modern Football. Gregor Mendel, Father of Genetics. Even Yuichi Kanai, Godfather of 1:8 Radio-Controlled Off-Road Buggy has a certain ring to it. But one Hungarian physician was the progenitor of something that, frankly, shouldn’t need progenitoring: Ignaz Semmelweis, Father of Handwashing.

Read below to learn more about Dr. Semmelweis’ tragic life and ironic death, and watch the latest episode of Honest History, “The Untold (Dirty) History of Handwashing,” to meet the big man himself! 

Semmelweis was active in the mid-1800s, a time when doctors were still diagnosing people with “too much blood,” and didn’t have much of a clue what exactly was going on inside of the average meatsack. In fact, hospitals were so inefficient, new mothers were dying of what they called “childbed fever” at a rate of 20 percent (compared to the 2 percent mortality rate of home births).

What could be causing this mysterious affliction? Semmelweis, an obstetrician, had a speculum and a hunch. Doctors’ daily routines revolved around the bookends of human life: delivering babies, and doing autopsies. It occurred to Semmelweis — and somehow, no one else — that taking his goopy mitts out of a disease-ridden corpse, then immediately placing them inside of a healthy pregnant woman, seemed to considerably increase her odds of becoming a corpse herself.

He instituted a rule in his hospital that doctors had to wash their hands between autopsies and deliveries — and the maternal mortality rate immediately plummeted down to 2 percent. Problem solved, right?

The glacial pace of science, and the colossal size of doctors’ egos, unfortunately, shoved a stick in the spokes of the wheel of progress. A form of germ theory had been proposed as early as the 1500s, but it wouldn’t become widespread until approximately 1900. So Semmelweis had no broadly accepted science to back up his discovery. He did have mountains of data, and swarms of alive mothers — but those were no match for a gentleman’s pride.

When modern medicine consisted of the four humours and garlic-stuffed steampunk masks, learned men were susceptible to all sorts of fairy tales. One such myth was that, as a high-class gentleman, a doctor was constitutionally incapable of being unclean. A man of such lofty stature washing his hands would be an admission of filth. Unconscionable!

As a result, despite being abso-fucking-lutely correct, Semmelweis’ peers revolted and began sabotaging his entire life. He was passed up for a promotion, then elbowed out of his hospital entirely. He couldn’t find work elsewhere, and soon curdled into a bitter, drunk, lecherous malcontent. As the years went on, his few remaining friends grew concerned and embarrassed. His mind was addled by rage, alcohol, and reportedly, either Alzheimer’s or syphilis. The man was clearly not destined for a happy ending, but it would be hard to guess how he actually went out.

His longtime friend and mentor, Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra, invited him to come and visit one of his shiny new hospitals. When Semmelweis got there, it became clear he’d been duped. Von Hebra, with the best of intentions, had lured him to a mental asylum. Semmelweis freaked the entire fuck out, got in a fist fight with the orderlies — and cut his hand.

If doctors weren’t washing their hands, you can bet orderlies at an asylum certainly weren’t giving them the full 20-second scrub. His cut soon got infected, festered badly, and ultimately killed him.

On the plus side, he was the subject of a Google Doodle one time. So maybe it was all worth it!

Watch “The Untold (Dirty) History of Handwashing” for more details, and check out the rest of our new series, Honest History, while you’re at it!

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