Believing that puerperal fever was caused not by miasma but by “infective material” from a dead body, Semmelweis set up a basin filled with chlorinated water in the hospital. Those passing from the dissection room to the wards were required to wash their hands before attending to living patients. Mortality rates on the medical students’ ward plummeted. In April 1847, the rate was 18.3 percent. After hand-washing was instituted the following month, rates in June were 2.2 percent, followed by 1.2 percent in July and 1.9 percent in August.
Semmelweis saved many lives; however, he was not able to convince many physicians of the merits of his belief that incidences of puerperal fever were related to contamination caused through contact with dead bodies. Even those willing to carry out trials of his methods often did so inadequately, producing discouraging results. After a number of negative reviews of a book he published on the subject, Semmelweis lashed out at his critics. His behavior became so erratic and embarrassing to his colleagues that he was eventually confined to a mental institute, where he spent his final days raging about childbed fever and the doctors who refused to wash their hands.
Semmelweis' story is still, to me, one of the saddest.