When Hungarian scientist, Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that maternity ward doctors were killing more women when they came straight after working with cadavers, he suggested that they should wash their hands, ideally with antiseptics.

Described as the “saviour of mothers”, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever [also known as “childbed fever”] could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics.

Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal.

His colleagues laughed at his suggestions as ludicrous.

Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847.

He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community.

Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and mocked him for it.

In 1865, the increasingly outspoken Semmelweis supposedly suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital by his colleague.

He died a mere 14 days later, at the age of 47, after being beaten by the guards, from a gangrenous wound on his right hand which might have been caused by the beating.

Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when doctors, practiced and operated using hygienic methods, with great success.

Thanks to research on epidemics like cholera, the use better microscopes, germ theory finally came to be mainstream.

A scientist who figured out how to measure the amount of bacteria in a sample of water, led to a huge innovation in public health.

Until then, you had to wait to see if less people died after you made a change to the water supply to judge if your experiment was successful.

Scientists began experimenting with Chlorine mixed in water, again decried at first on other parts of the world.

John Leal conducted one of the riskiest experiments in history by adding Chlorine into water supply in a municipality of New Jersey.

He was prosecuted in court for this as he was initially also seen as a madman.

The results, however, proved him right.

And, his decision to not patent his innovation makes him among history’s greatest unsung heroes.

When we look back at human history, we celebrate the likes of the Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver and Albert Einstein. As we should. But, we should also make space to celebrate the many human beings who, for various reasons, did not become immortalised despite their incredible work.

Scientists, doctors, nurses who went against the grain to experiment and come up with breakthrough findings that led to vaccines and medicines probably saved more lives than any other human team.

Here is to their incredible work.

We really do walk on the shoulders of giants.


“What made John Leal’s actions very noble was the fact that he chose not to patent it. Unencumbered, chlorine adoption spread all over the world. In the US alone, it is estimated to have improved adult mortality by 46% and child mortality by early 70%. One of the givens until then was the high probability of losing a child. The people behind this revolution didn’t get rich or become famous. But, they impacted our lives in incredible ways. ” | Steven Johnson [paraphrased]


Source: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson [History of clean water]

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