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Semmelweis NOT Lister inventer of antiseptics!

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887595.  Mon Feb 20, 2012 7:05 pm Reply with quote

When talking about halitosis, Fry mentioned Listerine mouthwash is named after Lister - the father of antiseptics.

He indeed is recognised and considered as such...HOWEVER! A quite interesting fact is that in fact Semmelweis (1818 - 1865) , a Hungarian doctor, while working in a hospital in Austria discovered the use of chlorinated hand wash as an antiseptic.

Semmelweis was in charge of two maternity wards. In the first maternity wards there was a much higher death rather than in the second maternity ward. He conducted a few experiments to find out the reason behind this. There was a priest who would walk through only the first maternity ward so that he could pray for which ever patient died. Semmelweis thought his presence may have been psychologically upsetting for the patients on the first ward so asked the priest not to walk through the ward anymore. After a few more experiments like this which were not producing any results, he finally realised that medical students performing autopsies only dealt with patients in the first ward. He asked the students to wash their hands in a chlorinated hand wash and indeed the death rates dropped significantly - even below that of the second ward! He concluded that "cadaverous particles from heterogeneous corpses" were the cause of the higher death rates and his chlorinated wash (i.e antiseptic wash!) was an adequate solution.

However, for some reason or another he was ridiculed (poor Semmey!) He eventually stopped working (after busting his butt to achieve a high position) and ended up in a hospital for the psychologically disturbed and died at aged only 47.

Coincidently (or even ironically), Lister triumphed as the father of antiseptics in 1865 - the same year Semmelweis died.


887601.  Mon Feb 20, 2012 8:13 pm Reply with quote

The story of Semmelweis is indeed a sad one because he would have probably survived his wounds in hospital if antiseptics were used.

Though he's recognised by some people as an early user of antisepctics, and in particular chlorine solutions, his reason for selecting the chlorine solution and his explanation for how it worked did not make too much sense to a lot of doctors, and it was not until the likes of Pasteur and Lister were able to explain germ theory (which is different from what Semmelweis was basing his studies on).

887698.  Tue Feb 21, 2012 7:09 am Reply with quote

True, but if you look at the history of medicine you find that germ theory began around 1545 with Fracastro and was developed by the likes of Leeuwenhoek, Kircher, Malpighi etc.. during the 17th century. However, for several reasons (most likely that their work was outside the accepted paradigm of the time - although not that controversial or different from what was believed) it took roughly a century and a half for germ theory to finally triumph with Pasteur.
Therefore, the doctors at the time of Semmelweis were not completely oblivious to the idea of germ theory.
It seems odd that no one made the connection or considered his work on a deeper level. Regardless of this - even if it didn't make much sense to a lot of doctors it seems bizarre that they ignored Semmelweis's findings as it produced clear and beneficial results. Perhaps they were too proud to use the hand wash without knowing why it works.

887822.  Tue Feb 21, 2012 11:14 am Reply with quote

Welcome nadine :-)

the doctors at the time of Semmelweis were not completely oblivious to the idea of germ theory.

But most people were - as witness the cholera epidemic in London in the 19th century, in which the closing down of one pump that had been contaminated put paid to the water-borne cholera organisms. However, this was done in the face of opposition from public health authorities of the time, who strongly held to the miasmatic theory of disease origin. I think it took a few decades before Pasteur's theory and Lister's practice thoroughly swept through not just the medical profession but the practice of public health.

889096.  Sat Feb 25, 2012 2:33 pm Reply with quote

Well, personally I hadn't heard of Lister until a couple of months ago, and I guess that's at least partly because every corner of the world will first credit its own people with great discoveries before looking if someone else might have had the same idea. In the German speaking part of Europe Semmelweis is very much regarded as the father of antisepsis and "Retter der Mütter" (saviour of mothers) and celebrated in many and varied ways. He's had stamps dedicazted to him, Budapest (his birthplace) has a Semmelweis University, there is a gynacological hospital called after him in Vienna and so on.

Same with the teleophone really - we like giving credit for that to Philipp Reis, the English-speaking world credits Alexander Graham Bell, and regarding TV Paul Nipkow would come to a German mind much more easily than the actually far more deserving John Logie Baird. Each culture to its own heroes I guess.




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