Ignaz Semmelweis, Germ Theory and Killing Ideas

“Creativity thrives when managers let people decide how to climb a mountain; they needn’t, however, let employees choose which one… In many companies, new ideas are met not with open minds but with time-consuming layers of evaluation.”

-Teresa Amabile

In 1503,  queen of England, Elizabeth of York gave birth to a girl child. Post birth queen developed infection of reproductive tract called puerperal fever or childbed fever and died within 9 days of giving birth to child. Unfortunately the child also did not survive. No one knew why queen developed infection.

Three centuries later a Hungarian obstetrician called Ignaz Semmelweis, who was working at Vienna General Hospital, was facing a strange problem. There was high mortality rate due to puerperal fever among women who were delivered by doctors and medical students, while those attended by midwives had low mortality rate. Infact pregnant women were so afraid of getting admitted in Vienna General Hospital, that they preferred to give birth on streets rather than in hospital.


Semmelweis decided to investigate and found that there was doctors used to dissect bodies of women who died because of puerperal fever and after autopsies use to examine women without cleaning hands. The disease was passed from dead bodies to pregnant women by doctors.

He asked doctors to wash their hands with chlorinated lime water before examining women; this resulted in drop of mortality rate from 18% to 2.2% and after washing of hands was made compulsory it dropped to zero.

wash hands

Semmelweis’s superior, Johann Klein was an Austrian and hence disliked Hungarian Semmelweis (during that period Austria ruled Hungary and Hungary was fighting for independence). Klein through dirty office politics managed to get rid of Semmelweis and in his place promoted fellow Austrian, Carl Braun.


Semmelweis idea of cleaning hands was dismissed by most of the doctors of that period. No one thought of examining the idea. Doctors decided to stick to age old idea of puerperal fever is caused by of miasmas or “bad air”. Infact Carl Braun after succeeding Semmelweis decided to install ventilation system in the hospital to reduce deaths due to fever, but it made no difference to death rate.

“A rapidly fatal putrid infection, even if the putrid matter is introduced directly into the blood, requires more than homeopathic doses of the poison. And, with due respect for the cleanliness of the Viennese students, it seems improbable that enough infective matter or vapor could be secluded around the fingernails to kill a patient”

-Carl Edvard Marius Levy, professor and head of the Danish Maternity institution in Copenhagen

These events depressed Semmelweis, later he was shifted to mental asylum, where he was beaten up by guards, which resulted in his death due to infection developed due to  beating.

“Most medical lecture halls continue to resound with lectures on epidemic childbed fever and with discourses against my theories…The medical literature for the last twelve years continues to swell with reports of puerperal epidemics, and in 1854 in Vienna, the birthplace of my theory, 400 maternity patients died from childbed fever. In published medical works my teachings are either ignored or attacked. The medical faculty at Würzburg awarded a prize to a monograph written in 1859 in which my teachings were rejected”.

-Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

Later research by French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur replaced “bad air” theory with “germ theory”. Infections and many diseases were caused by microbes and not by bad air. His findings strongly supported Semmelweis theory of doctors spreading infection by examining pregnant women with contaminated hands. Slowly importance of Semmelweis work was recognised and he was hailed as pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Awards, Stamps, Coins etc. were issued in his honour by Austria and Hungary.


Teresa Amabile is Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School. She has done lot of research in field of Innovation. She was also identified factors that if not well managed can kill a creative idea. These factors are challenging nature of assignment, freedom to work, provide adequate resources, supervisory encouragement, and organizational support.

“Creativity thrives when managers let people decide how to climb a mountain; they needn’t, however, let employees choose which one…deciding how much time and money to give to a team or project is a judgment call that can either support or kill creativity.”

-Teresa Amabile

Semmelweis never got support from his supervisors and organisation; his ideas were ridiculed and he finally ended in lunatic asylum due to depression.


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