Over the last two hundred years, medical technology has increased life expectancy thanks to advances in health science, including sanitary gloves, anesthesia, X-rays, vaccines, antibiotics, and transplantation.

However, the greatest medical contribution to humanity is hand washing, discovered by the Hungarian physician Ignaz P Semmelweis in the 19th century. Semmelweis - a gynecologist who worked most of his life at the Vienna General Hospital, when Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - discovered that puerperal fever, an infection that killed many women after childbirth, was spread by lack of hand-washing by doctors who had been dissecting corpses.

His discovery helped reduce mortality in delivery rooms and save many lives. Despite this, his colleagues were skeptical and rejected his handwashing measure, which led to his expulsion from the center and his ostracism. After publishing an open letter and being locked up in a psychiatric hospital, he died of sepsis, a disease he had fought so hard for.

To understand the importance of the Hungarian doctor's contribution, it is necessary to go back in time to the mid-19th century, when women giving birth were exposed to a dangerous postpartum infection known as puerperal fever, which put them at serious risk of death. . Back then, it is estimated that between 11% and 30% of women who gave birth died from this infection.

When he was only twenty-eight years old, Semmelweis was appointed assistant at the first gynecological clinic in Vienna, which consisted of two wards, one staffed by medical students and one by nuns. It was then that he observed that the mortality of women giving birth was significantly higher in the clinic attended by the students (10%), who were supposed to be better trained, than in the clinic attended by the nuns (3%).

After a lengthy and thoughtful analysis, Semmelweis observed that the only difference between the two wards was that the students attended the deliveries after having been dissecting cadavers in the anatomy ward and, of course, they did so without washing their hands. . At that time there was no regulation about it, since medicine had not yet advanced enough to think that infections could be contracted by simple contact.

When he proposed the solution to his colleagues (washing hands after performing autopsies), everyone without exception raised their hands to their heads. Are dirty hands related to parturients death?

And it is that nineteenth-century science attributed maternal high mortality to other factors, from fetid emanations from soils and waters -the famous miasmas- to a meager diet, through maternal weakness typical of childbirth.

Fortunately, the criticism did not scare Semmelweis and, from the authority conferred by his position, he required students and doctors to wash their hands with a calcium chloride solution, a measure that managed to reduce mortality below 3% in the ward rooms attended by doctors.

Nobody is a prophet in their own land

The irrefutable truth collided with the typical prejudice of Viennese medicine, his colleagues were not only skeptical, but also refused to leave their comfort zone and adopt the new measure. They complained to the director of the hospital - Dr. Johann Klein - who took action and expelled Dr. Semmelweis from the center.

The situation became irreversible, a short time later Semmelweis was locked up in a psychiatric hospital, where, paradoxes of life, he hurt his hand with a scalpel, the wound became infected and he ended up dying as a result of sepsis, the disease against who had fought so hard.

To be honest and true to the truth, there was already precedent for the importance of handwashing in the medical act, although it had gone unnoticed. The first to recognize the value of this measure was a Jewish doctor who lived in Córdoba in the 12th century: Maimonides. In one of his writings you can read: "never forget to wash your hands after touching a sick person."

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