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Ignaz Semmelweis


In a world filled with germs and diseases, the simple act of handwashing can make a huge impact in preventing infection. Washing hands, however, didn't enter medical care until the 1840s with a man named Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.


Born in Buda, Hungary, Semmelweis originally wanted to study law at the University of Vienna (for unknown reasons, he switched to medicine). After college, Semmelweis worked at the Vienna General Hospital maternity ward. The maternity ward operated two clinics with one major difference: the first clinic had twice the mortality rate of the second.


After eliminating many potential causes, Semmelweis realized that the doctors in the first clinic also worked in the cadaver lab. He believed they carried “cadaverous particles'' that infected the mothers. To remove these particles, he had the doctors wash their hands with bleach, and the mortality rates dropped significantly.


Despite his experiment's incredible results, the medical community didn’t accept his claims and brutally mocked him. He was later fired from the hospital, but he still tried to convince others of the importance of cleanliness. He was called mad and committed to an insane asylum where he died of sepsis. Thankfully, his students continued to write letters and convinced the medical community that Semmelweis was right all along.


Cleanliness is now paramount to good hospital care and has decreased the mortality rates of surgeries everywhere. Semmelweis may have died from infection, but his work has saved millions of others from the same fate.

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