Medicine, Art and Stamp Covers: Semmelweis and hand washing

Semmelweis0001

Stamp covers with their artwork can reflect events in the history of medicine. This Hungarian stamp cover was issued in 1965 to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) who discovered the association between childbed (puerperal) fever and mortality from the inadequate washing of the hands of the birth attendants. Semmelweis was a physician at the Vienna Lying-in hospital in Vienna. He concluded that infection was carried by medical students and doctors from the dissecting room where they had recently carried out dissections and post-mortem examinations. Following the introduction of hand washing with chlorinated water before examining obstetric patients, the mortality from childbed fever on the wards in the hospital fell significantly. Sadly, his colleagues did not immediately recognise or appreciate the importance of his discovery leading to his frustration and dismay.

The artwork on this stamp includes the bust of Semmelweis and shows him washing his hands before examining a female patient. There appears to be a sign on the wall above the pitcher which presumably relates to hand washing. It is also worth pointing out the incorrect spelling of his name although this is correct on the stamp.

It is perhaps interesting to note that the lesson with regard to hand washing needed to be relearnt a few years ago when there was concern about methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus in hospitals.

Dr Martyn Thomas May 2016

Posted in medical history.

One Comment

  1. This may not be the first example of the recognition that puerperal fever was spread by examining hands

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