Mark Rylance: why I had to tell the story of the genius who invented hospital hygiene Culture


It was an “angry little book” telling the story of one of the great misunderstood pioneers of medicine that caught the attention of Mark Rylance, the Oscar-winning English actor. “I didn’t know about Semmelweis, his work, or the tragic way in which he was oppressed by the medical authorities,” he said over the weekend. “But then I took a copy of an old French biography, reprinted in translation by a friend of mine at Atlas Press, and found it very moving.”Now Ignaz Semmelweis, the revolutionary Hungarian physician of the 19th century who discovered that invisible germs can transmit deadly disease, will be the next role of the acclaimed actor and could also be at the center of a unique and timely theatrical experience this summer.

The book Rylance by chance on, Semmelweis: A fictional biography by the controversial Louis-Ferdinand Céline and published in 1936, gave a fiery and passionate version of Semmelweis’s life, describing how he was ignored or derided throughout his career.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis reduced maternal mortality by having medical students wash their hands. Photograph: Getty

“Working in Vienna, this brilliant immigrant doctor, who was nervous about speaking in public because of his strong Hungarian accent, realized that these were bacteria he called “cadaveric particles” that infected patients by the hundreds. He didn’t have a microscope, but he used reason, observation, deduction and even his sense of smell,” said Rylance, who last year took the idea for a piece on Semmelweis to Tom Morris, artistic director of The Bristol Old Vic and one of the internationally hit designers War horse. Together they created an ambitious production, calling on writer Stephen Brown to work on a script.

“A piece is not only about the fact Semmelweis was a genius who came to these conclusions 20 years before Joseph Lister or Louis Pasteur. This is how a renegade like that needs other people around them to help communicate. He would get angry when we didn’t believe him, but the reluctance of these leading doctors at The Vienna General Hospital was understandable because he told them they were killing people,” said Rylance, 60. “n pioneer like Semmelweis is like the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer. It can cut through, but it’s not the best thing to put meat in your mouth. He could not get them to understand the rigor required with hand washing and he was constantly haunted by the ghosts of those whom he had seen die in the neighborhoods and who, in some cases, had involuntarily killed himself.

Just like rehearsals for Dr. Semmelweis was due to begin this spring, the events that changed the world took over and the importance of hand washing was suddenly in the news. The name Semmelweis has once again gained in currency.

“We were ready to go before the lockdown, with our diverse distribution of 12 mostly in place. And we had unusual ideas, like using a ballet corps of dancers to represent all the mothers who died needlessly,” said the actor, recently seen on movie screens in Dunkirk And Bridge of spies.

Many shows are waiting behind the scenes for the current pandemic to recede, and Dr. Semmelweis is now lined up to take the stage in Bristol next year. Meanwhile, however, both Rylance and Morris feel that the story deserves to be shared now. They are therefore working on a radical proposal to involve the public in the law.

“As long as the play is a universal story, it is so topical now that we have explored the idea of rehearsing the casting together in quarantine and perhaps being filmed, almost as Big Brother. We could do it inside the theater itself, which has a canteen and showers, or stay nearby. I love camping, so I’m attracted to the idea,” Rylance said.

The play will bring the audience back to 1847, when Semmelweis reduced the mortality rate in maternity wards in a matter of weeks by having medical students washed with chlorinated fluid.

“He still has not been able to convince the authorities of his discovery, in part because the autopsy was at the forefront of medicine at the time and it was a leading hospital. Tens of thousands of autopsies are performed, linking external symptoms to internal causes. So it was very difficult for Semmelweis to challenge,” said the actor who won many fans playing Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall BBC1 dramatization of the book.

The first indication of the cause of infections came from the observation of pregnant women when they were shown in one of the two parallel maternity wards set up for the poor. One was served by nurses who had learned midwifery on mannequins and the other by trainee doctors who had performed on corpses at autopsy. “Semmelweis wanted to work with the famous doctors, but they put him on the desk at the doors of these two rooms and he quickly noticed that the women didn’t want to go to the room where the doctors worked,” Rylance said. “On the street, we knew the mortality rate was much higher.”

As Celine’s biography veers into mythological, she charts the true path of the clairvoyant doctor’s madness.

“A truth seems to be that Semmelweis was severed and put in a psychiatric asylum in Vienna, where he was beaten there before dying there from sepsis in 186,” Rylance said, adding that the value of the emotional aspect of Semmelweis’s thinking is the key to the story for him.

“One thing Celine did well was that he was obsessed with his work. It was the emotion that drove him. We praise rational behavior so much, but it is the heat or fire that has forged his brilliant mind.

“The lesson for me is that we should be allowed to be emotional. If we exclude people because they are emotional, we may well miss things in our institutions. It’s important, I think.


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