Women were dying from childbirth at hospitals. This 19th-century doctor figured out why.
True
March of Dimes

Today, we know that washing our hands is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.

But how we came to know that is pretty fascinating.

Image via iStock.


Handwashing is actually a relatively new practice — even for doctors.

In fact, one of the first doctors to realize how important handwashing could be — Ignaz Semmelweis — didn’t discover this fact until 1847. And even after he did realize it, the battle to convince the rest of the medical community wasn’t easy.

The 19th century has been described by some historians as “a golden age of the physician and scientist” because for the first time, doctors were expected to have scientific training.

They were also expected to use symptom-based diagnoses to solve medical ailments. And to do this, of course, medicine relied on understanding what was happening inside the human body to get at the root of disease.

So, autopsies became all the rage.

Not only did they form a critical part of a doctor’s training, but the doctors who regularly performed them were the most respected in the medical community. An unfortunate byproduct of this, though, was the erroneous belief that the dirtier the doctor, the better the doctor.

In fact, there are accounts of doctors going directly from their last autopsy to deliver a baby or treat a patient without changing their clothes.

Enter Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis.

A portrait of Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis. Image via Jeño Doby/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1846, Semmelweis had just started his new job at the maternity clinic at Vienna General Hospital.

At that time, women were dying at staggering rates in hospitals shortly after giving birth from “childbed fever,” a disease also called puerperal fever. It was a cruel infection, causing raging fevers, painful abscesses, an infection in the uterus and birth canal, sepsis, and then finally, death — all within about three days of the baby’s delivery. And it was the single most common cause of maternal death at the time.

Being a man of science, Semmelweis wanted to understand why so many women were dying in his clinic. So he studied two maternity wards in the hospital — one staffed by doctors and medical students, the other by midwives — and recorded the number of deaths in each ward.

Vienna General Hospital, where Semmelweis worked. Image via Josef & Peter Schafer/Wikimedia Commons.

His results showed that women died at a rate nearly five times higher in the ward staffed by doctors and medical students.

But it wasn’t until one of his colleagues, a pathologist, got sick and died after pricking his finger in an autopsy of someone who had died from childbed fever that Semmelweis realized that anyone, not just mothers, could get sick from puerperal fever, and the reason the midwives' ward had fewer deaths was because they didn't do autopsies.

He theorized that there must be some “cadaverous particles” or “morbid poison” that doctors were getting on their hands during autopsies. And the doctors in the ward were then transferring these particles inside the women when they delivered the baby, which then made the women sick.

Today, these “cadaverous particles” are known as bacteria, such as streptococcus pyogenes.

A photomicrograph of streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, which causes puerperal fever.  Image via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia Commons.

Semmelweis immediately ordered the medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments before delivering babies.

They were told to use a chlorine lime solution, not soap, until they could no longer smell the bodies they had dissected.

And it worked — chlorine is actually a great disinfectant. The rate of puerperal fever fell drastically in the doctor’s ward.

The first edition of Semmelweis' published findings. Image via István Benedek/Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, the Semmelweis' colleagues did not embrace his findings — they were outraged at the suggestion that they were the cause of their patients' deaths. Semmelweis was fired from the hospital and eventually committed to an asylum. He died at the asylum two weeks later. (Several historians believe that he died, after being beaten at the asylum, from sepsis — an infection in the bloodstream caused by germs.)

It would take about 20 years before his ideas would start to be accepted by the medical community. And even then, it was "germ theory" — and the work of Louis Pasteur in the late-1860s — that really convinced anyone of the importance of hygiene and handwashing.

Over a 150 years later, though, Semmelweis is finally getting the recognition he deserves because the simple act of handwashing is one of the most important tools we have in public health.

And its benefits extend well beyond the hospital. Washing your hands reduces the chances of getting diarrheal illnesses by 31%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also reduces the occurrence of respiratory illnesses — including colds — by 16 to 21%.

That’s why in the 1980s, the first nationally endorsed hand hygiene guidelines were released by the CDC, after a series of outbreaks of food-borne and health care-associated infections. And over the next few decades, a number of other guidelines have followed to stress the importance to the general public.

Image via iStock.

Today, the battle to promote this public health tool is still not over.

Diarrhea and respiratory infections remain leading causes of death in the developing world — claiming about 3.5 million children every year — because people either don't know how important handwashing is or don't have access to a reliable, clean water source. There are also still over 1.4 million cases of health care-associated infections around the world. But through education initiatives, NGOs all over the world are hoping to bring about change with this one simple habit.

Proper hand hygiene is still one of the best ways to fight these infections and diseases — and we have Dr. Semmelweis to thank.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Dino Serrao believes there is beauty in every person and is on a mission to prove it.

Serrao is an Italian photographer who lives in Norway and travels the world to photograph ordinary people on the street. His portraits are awesome, but the video documentation of him taking people's portraits is even better. He shares the videos and photos on his various social media channels and has created quite a following.

For a taste of why, watch Serrao convince this elderly grandmother to let him take her picture:

Keep Reading Show less