The most magnificent hospitals of the day were losing one out of every six young mothers to a mysterious scourge commonly referred to as “childbed fever”. The chance of infection and possibly death, to both mother and child, was an understood and even accepted hazard of medically assisted childbirth.
The average hospital was losing anywhere from 10% to 35% of mothers to what was known as puerperal fever.
In 1844, at twenty-six years of age, the now Dr. Semmelweis, decided that there was a connection between the mothers’ deaths and the practice of physicians.
It was at the Vienna General Hospital that Semmelweis began investigating the causes of puerperal fever, against the resistance of his superiors who believed it to be non-preventable. Semmelweis became the house officer of the First Obstetrical Clinic in July 1846, which had a maternal mortality rate due to puerperal fever of 13.10%. This was well known at the time and many women preferred to give birth to their children on the street rather than being brought there.
The Second Obstetrical Clinic had a mortality rate due to puerperal fever of only 2.03%, however; both were located in the same hospital and used the same techniques, with the only difference being the people who worked there.
The first was the teaching service for medical students, while the second had been selected in 1839 for the instruction of midwives.
The breakthrough for Ignaz Semmelweis occurred in 1847 with the death of his friend Jakob Kolletschka from an infection contracted after his finger was accidentally punctured with a knife while performing a postmortem examination.
Kolletschka's own autopsy showed a pathological situation similar to that of the women who were dying from puerperal fever. Semmelweis immediately proposed a connection between cadaveric contamination and puerperal fever and made a detailed study of the mortality statistics of both obstetrical clinics.
He concluded that he and the students carried the infecting particles on their hands from the autopsy room to the patients they examined in the First Obstetrical Clinic.
The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed at the time. Thus, Semmelweis concluded that some unknown "cadaveric material" caused childbed fever.
Semmelweis instituted a policy of using a solution of chlorinated lime for washing hands between autopsy work and the examination of patients. Following the institution of this guidleine the mortality rate dropped from its then-current level of 12.24% to 2.38%, comparable to the Second Clinic's.
After eleven years and the delivery of 8,537 babies, he lost only 184 mothers–about one in fifty.
The “savior of mothers” argued, “Puerperal fever (childbed fever) is caused by decomposed material, conveyed to a wound. I have shown how it can be prevented. I have proved all that I have said. But while we talk, talk, talk, gentlemen, woman are dying. I am not asking anything world shaking. I am merely asking you only to wash. . . For God’s sake, wash your hands.”
Something so simple as the washing of hands indefinitely changed the face of the medical community.
We now know how right Semmelweis was. At the time, however, he was met with strong resistance from the educated and tenured physicians of his day. It was seen as a mark of skill and ability for a doctor to have blood on his hands.
It was that simple pride in a perceived presentation that cost thousands of women their lives.
All they had to do to save the lives of the women and children they delivered was wash their hands.
How important it is that the church have clean hands.
We can easily be tempted in the reckless, carefree world we live in to see carnal pleasures and worldliness as a sign of our prowess and strength as ministers.
Brothers and Sisters it is simple yet crucial that we have clean hands.
In the words of Semmelweis himself, no one is asking anything world shaking. We are only asking that you wash your hands.