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Slide Presentation of the 2007 Annual Meeting of AHRQ

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History Revisited

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  • Ignaze Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818—August 13, 1865)
  • Hungarian physician the "savior of mothers" who discovered, in 1847, hand washing drastically reduced incidence of puerperal fever in obstetrical clinics.


"Dr. Semmelweis worked in a hospital in Vienna whose maternity patients were dying at such an alarming rate that they begged to be sent home," said Julie Gerberding, M.D., director of CDC's Hospital Infections Program. "Most of those dying had been treated by student physicians who worked on cadavers during an anatomy class before beginning their rounds in the maternity ward."
Because the students didn't wash their hands between touching the dead and the living--handwashing was an unrecognized hygienic practice at the time--pathogenic bacteria from the cadavers regularly were transmitted to the mothers via the students' hands.
"The result was a death rate five times higher for mothers who delivered in the hospital than for mothers who delivered at home" said Dr. Gerberding.
In an experiment considered quaint at best by his colleagues, Dr. Semmelweis insisted that his students wash their hands before treating the mothers--and deaths on the maternity ward fell fivefold.

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