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04.03.2020 | main topic | Ausgabe 11-12/2020 Open Access

Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift 11-12/2020

Ignaz Semmelweis: a victim of harassment?

Zeitschrift:
Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift > Ausgabe 11-12/2020
Autor:
Sonja Schreiner
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Summary

Ignaz Semmelweis’ (1818–1865) discovery of the endemic causes of febris puerperalis is a striking example of the role of pathology in medicine. Transdisciplinarity encounters Semmelweis’ biography, which is neither linear nor totally focused on medicine. He completed the philosophicum (artisterium), studying the septem artes liberales (1835–1837) in Pest, comprising humanities and natural science. After moving to Vienna, he began to study law, but turned to medicine as early as 1838. In 1844, he graduated with a botanical doctoral thesis composed in Neo-Latin, showing linguistic and stylistic talent and a broad knowledge of gynecology and obstetrics. The style and topoi demonstrate the interchangeability of what he learnt during his propaedeuticum. Nowadays, hardly anyone is familiar with this booklet, for two main reasons: the language choice and the life-saving impact of the physician’s opus magnum on the reasons for puerperal fever (Die Aetiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers). In later life, he became convinced that he had no talent as a (scientific) author—a fatal error that led him to become a victim of what we now call “publish or perish.” Semmelweis had felt rejected for years. This negative feeling was the reason for his decision not to publish his great book for 14 years. When it finally went to the printer in 1861, the scientific community did not accept it. This experience caused psychosomatic symptoms owing to his long-standing and deeply felt disappointment. Bad conscience tortured him. This permanent stress destroyed his health: in 1865, his relatives (including his wife) and friends took him from Budapest to Vienna. He thought he was going to spend some time relaxing, but in fact was led into a newly built asylum for the mentally ill, the Niederösterreichische Landesirrenanstalt. When he realized what was happening, he tried to escape. Badly abused, he died from sepsis caused by open wounds and a dirty straightjacket 2 weeks later. This article will show Semmelweis to be a multilingual author of scientific literature and (open) letters; it will present him as a researcher who became a victim of harassment and what is referred to as the “Semmelweis reflex” (“Semmelweis effect”); and it will focus on his afterlife in (children’s) literature, drama, and film.

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