More than 125 years ago, a Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis published a paper on the Vienna General Hospital. At that time "childbirth fever" was killing 10 to 30 percent of the women bearing children in hospitals.
In searching through the statistics at the hospital, where he was an obstetrician, Semmelweis noticed a threefold difference in the death rates of women in the hospital's two obstetrics wards. Medical students worked in one, midwives in the other.
Different rates of death in the two wards were so obvious that women pleaded and screamed to be admitted to midwives' care rather than the students'. The hysteria of these women was put down as at least a partial cause of their deaths.
But for more than 20 years, Semmelweis sought evidence that the differences between the two wards could be the cause of the different death rates in them. Finally, a colleague cut his finger while doing a postmortem on one of the women who died in childbirth. The doctor soon acquired the streptococcal infection and died.
Semmelweis realized that the same "cadaveric particles" that were killing the women could be communicated, and not only to his dead colleague. Medical students, he wrote, went directly from performing autopsies on the dead women to the obstetrics ward to examine the new arrivals.
Beginning in the spring of 1847 he made all the students and doctors wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before entering the wards. In a short time the deaths on the ward dropped to 1 1/4 percent, about 10 percent below the rate of hospitals at the time.
Semmelweis' results were not accepted by his colleagues, however, and he retired to a rural hospital. He died in an asylum, apparently of a hospital-caused infection.