World Health Organization ceremony honors Ignaz Semmelweis

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In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) unveiled a bust of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis at WHO headquarters in Geneva. The bust was a gift of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Szeged and Semmelweis University Switzerland.

Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician, introduced to the world a lifesaving healthcare concept: disinfection (hand washing) to prevent infection. During his time at Vienna General Hospital, he nearly eliminated a high mortality rate from “childbed fever” among mothers who had just given birth.

Much of the medical hierarchy of that time, the mid-19th century, was indifferent, even hostile to Semmelweis’ idea. A weaker man would have caved to the immense pressure from above and conformed to expectations. But, Semmelweis was committed to saving the lives of patients regardless of the personal cost. That cost included losing hospital positions and being accused of odd and angry behavior that led to involuntary commitment and brutal treatment at an asylum where he died.

In honor of Semmelweis’ contributions, 2018 was declared the Ignác Semmelweis Memorial Year on 5 June 2018 at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, days before the 200th anniversary of his birth. President of Hungary János Áder’s opening remarks “highlighted the importance of pursuing truth in science, taking risks, benefitting patients rather than institutions, breaking habits and remaining curious about new facts for any scientific pursuit, including medicine.”

Since Semmelweis’ day, many other healthcare workers have risked the ire of peers to report ethical and medical abuses. Often, they are accused of “disruptive behavior” like Mark Fahlen, MD, after reporting unsafe hospital practices. Employees of Veterans Administration hospitals, among them Katherine Mitchell, Sam Foote and Chris Kirkpatrick, reported ostracism and other retaliation after alleging abuses of patients. Other health professionals, including Nancy Olivieri, James Sprague and James Murtagh, reported reprisals after trying to protect the public from medical research misconduct.

Their collective experiences demonstrate that taking the right road is seldom easy. But, where would we be today without people like Ignaz Semmelweis?

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