‘Epoch-making’ paper on importance of handwashing goes to auction

A scientific journal covering a Hungarian doctor’s discovery is up for sale, alongside a letter from Edward Jenner, apologising for a delay in vaccine supply

After the last year, handwashing is anything but a novelty. But a 19th-century Hungarian doctor’s “epoch-making” – and controversial – announcement on the importance of clean hands is going up for auction.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a young house officer at the first obstetrical clinic of the Vienna General Hospital’s teaching unit. In 1847, he spotted that there was an extremely high rate of maternal and neonatal mortality in one of the hospital’s maternity wards – around 13% – while in the others the death rate was only 2%. The first clinic was used as a teaching facility for medical students, while the second was used to teach midwives. Semmelweis concluded that the medical students were carrying infections from the autopsy dissection rooms into the delivery rooms, and instigated a policy of strict handwashing using chlorinated limewater. The mortality rate subsequently dropped dramatically, to around 1%.

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