The Doctor's Plague
A haunted clinic in 1800’s Vienna? Sounds like the perfect setting for American Horror Story — and also our next episode. We discover why one clinic was deemed cursed and how a doctor risked his life trying to uncover the secret.
With hand sanitizer at nearly every corner, it is hard to imagine a time where we simply didn't understand how germs were spread. Just check out the bottom right photo from Josephinum Medical Museum in Vienna, Austria, depicting surgical theatre as chaotic and glove-free. Ignaz Semmelweis was on to something way ahead of his time.
Ignaz Semmelweis was born July 1, 1818 in Hungary as one of eight children to a wealthy Jewish Grocer family. He initially studied law at the persistence of his father, but switched to medicine shortly after beginning school. After he graduated medical school in 1844, he went on to obtain his master's in midwifery. This landed him at Vienna General Hospital nearly 2 years later where he became what today would be the equivalent of 'Chief Resident'. He took note of the difference in death rates between clinics and began investigating possible causes. He started by analyzing cadavers and keeping meticulous records of those patients, their medical history and method of delivery. The mortality rate between the two clinics could not be denied. This ended with his demotion at Vienna General because the clinic director felt he was over-stepping. Already, one could see Ignaz was 'causing problems' in an attempt to merely understand and help his patients' plight.
The deaths were rattling him daily so he took a leave of absence for nearly a month. Upon returning, he discovered his good friend and fellow physician, Jakob Kolletschka, had died after a medical student accidentally cut Kolletschka's finger during surgery. Semmelweis performed the autopsy on his friend and recognized the unmistakable signs of puerperal fever. He hypothesized that physicians and medical students were somehow transferring disease from cadavers while performing autopsies themselves. Because no one would establish the existence of germs for another 40 years, the idea that doctors were responsible for some enigmatic substance was highly controversial. Perhaps, downright insane. It contradicted everything physicians knew at the time, which was mostly the importance of balancing the 4 humors.
Ignaz nonetheless decided to use a chloride solution to clean everyone's hands. Because the same solution was used to expunge foul odors, he reasoned it may also destroy whatever the cadaver carried along with it. In 1847, he implemented this only to watch the death rate plummet to nearly 2%! Still, Ignaz was in direct opposition with the scientific community. To add to this, revolution had just sprung in his home country of Hungary and he was accused of being sympathetic to the cause. He was not granted an extension at Vienna General and fled back to Hungary to find work.
His antiseptic techniques were affective there, too, but so was the criticism. He wrote several papers and published a novel into the early 1860s, which received ample backlash from the medical community. It was around this time that his mental health began deteriorating, although it is unclear whether it was dementia, Alzheimer's, end stage Syphilis or simply a psychotic break from the interminable stress. He began seeing his wife and 5 children less and less and was obsessed with the topic of puerperal fever. Soon enough, he was lured to an insane asylum where he died 2 weeks from pyemia sustained from beatings at the facility. In an act of grandiose irony, the father of the anti-septic movement, died of an infection of all things.
Portrait of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 - 1865)
Surgery was often performed as quickly as possible in front of an audience of dozens of men. Gloves were first introduced in 1894 by William Stewart Halsted at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but not widely accepted until the 1950s.
For more information about the life of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis visit:
To read excerpts from his published book:
To learn more about the Germ Theory of Disease:
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Hosts: Wafik and Jessica Sedhom
Guest appearances: Nate Zeile as Viennese Doctor, Alex Moersen as Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, and Erika Torvik as Pregnant Lady
Written and Produced by: Wafik and Jessica Sedhom
Edited by: Wafik Sedhom