Thursday, July 19, 2007

Immortal Magyar

When I was researching Hungarian history for what turned into two plays (“Maura and Katinka” and “Geography”), I was looking at a list of famous Hungarians of the 19th century. There were some politicians, some composers (like Liszt) and a guy who I had never heard of: Ignaz Semmelweis. Who the hell was he?

Well, if you’re a woman and you’ve ever given birth (or if you’re not a woman and you’ve ever had surgery), Semmelweis is kinda huge. He discovered the importance of antiseptic surgery 15 years before Joseph Lister did- though I know I was told in high school that Lister was first. Semmelweis was from a working class family in Pest. He studied at the General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) in Vienna and specialized in obstetrics. He noticed that the women giving birth in the charity ward had a lower death rate from childbed fever than the wealthier women. In some European hospitals up to a third of women giving birth died from childbed fever, so this was no small thing. The reason was that the poor women tended to be dirtier, and the doctors would wash their hands between deliveries. The rich women were cleaner, so the doctors didn’t bother.

But nobody in power in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, believed him. They thought he was at best an upstart, and at worse a nut. Semmelweis finally retreated to Pest, and ran an obstetrics clinic there. But still he was undermined: one of the nurses had a grudge against him, and didn’t bother to change sheets between patients, even though she’d been told to; things of that ilk. This went on for years- Semmelweis battling to save women’s lives, and carrying incredible guilt when he was unable to. He had doctors wash their hands with soap, sterilize them with a chemical (carbolic acid) and then rub their hands with oil, so that the germs (not that anyone knew what a germ was yet- this was all observation on his part) wouldn’t get into the pores of their hands (no rubber gloves in the 1850s).

Finally, in the summer of 1865, Semmelweis lost it and cracked up. His wife had him committed to a sanatorium outside of Vienna. What no one knew was that during one of his last obstetrics cases, Semmelweis had cut his finger. He developed gangrene, and was dead in two weeks. The day before Semmelweis died, in England Lister began using carbolic acid to sterilize his hands before surgery. Fourteen years later, Louis Pasteur identified the bacteria that caused childbed fever.

There is a building in Pest that’s part of the general hospital that has Semmelweis’ name on it- I’ve seen it. But there’s not much else to remember poor old crazy Ignaz, who saved so many lives. “Immortal Magyar” is the name of an old biography of Semmelweis from 1950.

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