The Age of Hospital Reform.
During the days before Lister, the reasons for
why patients died of infection were not fully
understood. The risk of death especially
because of surgery was greatly increased by the
lack of understanding of infection and what
Cleanliness although encouraged, i.e. the floor
of the ward should be clean and the beds tidy,
it was a sad fact that the surgeon was the more
likely spreader of disease. He was more than
likely to wash his hands after the operation
than before it.
The clothes and aprons worn by surgeons during
operations were, to quote a source,
“stiff and stinking
with Pus and blood” In those days
sawdust was used for soaking up the blood on
Clean practise and infection control with
doctors and other staff, in wards and operating
rooms was a world problem and was only really
addressed by people such as Florence
Nightingale, Joseph Lister and a Hungarian
Doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis.
This Hungarian obstetrician, discovered how to
prevent puerperal fever from being transmitted
to mothers, thus introducing antiseptic
prophylaxis into medicine.
Born in Buda and educated at the universities
of Pest and Vienna, Semmelweis became
assistant professor in the maternity ward of
the Vienna general hospital.
In the 1840s puerperal, or child bed fever, a
bacterial infection of the female genital tract
after childbirth, was taking the lives of up to
30 per cent of the women giving birth in
lying-in wards, whereas most women who gave
birth at home remained relatively
Semmelweis noticed that women who were
examined by student doctors who had not washed
their hands after leaving the Post Mortem room
had much higher mortality rates.
When a colleague who had received a scalpel cut
died from infection, Semmelweis concluded
that the puerperal fever was septic and
By ordering students to wash their hands with
chlorinated lime before examining patients, he
reduced the maternal mortality rate from 12.24
to 1.27 per cent in two years.
Semmelweis nevertheless encountered strong
opposition from hospital officials, and because
of his political activity as well, he left
Vienna in 1850 for the University of Pest,
where he became professor of obstetrics at the
In spite of his enforcing antiseptic practices
and reducing the mortality rate from puerperal
fever to 0.85 per cent,
Semmelweis findings and publications were
resisted by hospital and medical authorities in
Hungary and abroad. After suffering a
breakdown, he went to a mental hospital in
Vienna, where he died ironically of blood
poisoning from an infection contracted during
an operation he had performed earlier.