Honoring a Physician in an Opera

I was going to post this example of commemorating a physician in an opera after Dr. Bert Hansen’s excellent talk on how Life Magazine honored members of the medical profession via photography, but this post also fits in with our examination of songs.

In any case, a while ago we were privileged to attend a performance of an opera-in-progress entitled “Semmelweis” at the New York Academy of Medicine. The composers of the opera, Ray Lustig (music) and Matt Gray (words) are writing the opera under the auspices of the Brooklyn-based American Opera Projects and they have chosen a terribly sad story to tell.


If you are like me, you’ve never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, but he certainly deserves to known and esteemed for his ground-breaking work that was never honored (and actually sneered at) during his lifetime.



Ignaz Semmelweiss. Image from Wikipedia, click for source.

Semmelweis was born in 1818 in Hungary to German Jewish parents. He graduated from medical school in Vienna in 1844 and became an obstretrician at a prestigious teaching hospital there.


There were two maternity clinics at the hospital. At that time, many women died after childbirh from puerperal (“childbed”) fever. Women who gave birth in Clinic One were attended by physicians and medical students and women who gave birth in Clinic Two were attended by midwives and their students. Semmelweis noticed that the mortality rate for women in Clinic One was very much higher than the mortality rate in Clinic Two, In fact, women who gave birth outside in the street had a lower mortality rate than the women who delivered with the help of the doctors.


The discrepancy bothered Semmelweis and he began keeping statistics on all sorts of factors in an attempt to discover the reason why more women were dying in Clinic One. The only difference he could find was that the doctors and medical students would go directly from conducting autopsies to delivering babies without washing their hands.


No one knew from germs back then but Semmelweis conjectured that there was something about the cadavers that was causing the childbed fevers. He believed “cadaverous particles” that he could smell were causing the deaths.


So, Semmelweis instituted a new policy that required attending physicians to wash their hands with bleach before they delivered babies and sure enough, the mortality rate in Clinic One dropped by 90% .



Semmelweiss making doctors wash their hands. Click for source.

Sadly, many doctors disagreed with Semmelweis’ theory and ignored or even ridiculed him. Part of their problem was that they refused to believe their highly educated hands could carry anything harmful and part of their disdain was because they just didn’t like Semmelweis who wasn’t sophisticated – he was a Jewish foreignor who spoke with an accent and so they discounted his ideas.


By 1850 the hospital effectively forced him out and Semmelweis moved to Budapest where he took a much less prestigious job at a hospital there. He reduced the really high rate of childbed fever there to less than 1% of birhs. Still, most doctors refused to wash their freaking hands.


Semmelweis became depressed and obsessed with reducing the rate of childbed deaths. He wrote some Open Letters to prominent European obstreticians in which he essentially accused them of murdering women with their irresponsible behavior. Semmelweis was rightly peeved but his behavior became erratic. He was drinking and staying away from his family and when he turned 47, a colleague lured him to an insane asylum and had him locked up. Poor Semmelweis tried to escape and the guards beat him so badly that he died of an infection two weeks later.


Of course, years later, Louis Pasteur’s work vindicated Semmelweis. Today there are hospitals named in his honor in Austria and Hungary. Germany honored him in a 1956 postage stamp:



Click for source. Depositphotos.


There is even a psychological reaction called the “Semmelweis Reflex” which Wikipedia defines as “a metaphor for a certain type of human behavior characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs, or paradigms”.


After we enjoyed the wonderful opera (and to be honest I’m not usually a fan of the genre), some physicians in the audience talked about the dismal maternal mortality rates in modern day New York City. Maternal mortality rates here are 30% higher in 2013 than they were ten years ago and the racial disparities here are shocking, Only three states in the US have worse maternal mortality rates than New York. Semmeweiss would be rightfully horrified.

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