The history of medicine is always full of excitement, and this NPR piece about Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis is no exception. Semmelweis worked tirelessly on solving the mystery of why so many women were dying of puerperal fever in childbirth.
At the time, medicine was looking to anatomy to find cures and solutions, replacing earlier ways of thinking that emphasized balance among the four humors. Semmelweis noticed that more women died at a ward staffed my medical students and doctors than at a ward staffed by midwives. After testing several other hypotheses, Semmelweis realized that only medical students and doctors performed autopsies in addition to labor deliveries. He then advocated for all staff members to wash their hands, and 'publicly berated people' who disagreed. Unfortunately, his antics caused him to lose his job, and the staff stopped washing their hands soon afterwards.
This episode in history shows the difficulty of convincing audiences of new medical advances. Furthermore, we still have not learned this historical lesson since washing hands continues to remain a problem in public health. As this story illustrates, the history of medicine can teach us about problem solving methods in addressing the most important problem of all: human illness.
What Semmelweis had discovered is something that still holds true today: Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay.... Even today, convincing health care providers to take hand-washing seriously is a challenge. Hundreds of thousands of hospital patients get infections each year, infections that can be deadly and hard to treat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent these infections.