Semmelweis I (1861)

Die Aetiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers. [The etiology, concept, and prophylaxis of childbed fever]. Budapest and Vienna; Hartleben.
In 1861, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working at the Vienna Maternity Hospital, published his analyses of statistics from ‘a natural experiment’ demonstrating the importance of hygiene in preventing death from ‘childbed fever.’

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“The large gratis Viennese maternity hospital is divided into two clinics; one is called the first, the other the second. By Imperial Decree of 10 October 1840, and Administrative Ordinance of 27 October 1840, all male students were assigned to the first clinic and all female students to the second. Before this time student obstetricians and midwives received training in equal numbers in both clinics. The admission of maternity patients was regulated as follows: Monday afternoon at 4 o’clock admissions began in the first clinic and continued until Tuesday afternoon at four. Admissions then began in the second clinic and continued until Wednesday afternoon at four o’clock. At that time admissions resumed in the first clinic until Thursday afternoon, etc. On Friday afternoon at four o’clock admissions began in the first clinic and continued through forty-eight hours until Sunday afternoon, at which time admissions began again in the second clinic. Admissions alternated between the two clinics through twenty-four hour periods, and only once a week did admissions continue in the first clinic for forty-eight hours. Thus the first clinic admitted patients four days a week, whereas the second clinic admitted for only three days. The first clinic, thereby, had fifty two more days of admissions (each year) than the second.

From the time the first clinic began training only obstetricians until June 1847, the mortality rate in the first clinic was consistently greater than the second clinic, where only midwives were trained. Indeed, in the year 1846, the mortality rate in the first clinic was five times as great as in the second, and through a six year period it was, on average, three times as great.”

Translation by Ulrich Tröhler


Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818-65)


Video / Audio

Semmelweis’s careful observations are cited in this video for members of the public about the importance of research into the effects of health interventions.

The video was produced by ECHO Research (Faculty of Nursing) and ARCHE (Department of Pediatrics) at the University of Alberta as part of a series called “Understanding Health Research”.  View it on YouTube or browse their YouTube channel.


The editors are grateful to:

Patricia Want, Librarian at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, for providing a copy of and permission to reproduce this record.

The Wellcome Trust for making available the portrait of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818-1865).