‘Vintage’ Paper on Importance of Handwashing Up for Auction | Manuscripts and letters


After last year, hand washing is anything but new. But the “historic” – and controversial – announcement by a 19th-century Hungarian doctor about the importance of clean hands is being auctioned off.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a young officer of the house of the first obstetric clinic of the teaching unit of the Vienna General Hospital. In 1847 he noticed that there was an extremely high rate of maternal and neonatal mortality in one of the hospital’s maternity wards – around 13% – while in the others the death rate was only 2%. The first clinic served as a teaching center for medical students, while the second was used to teach midwives. Semmelweis concluded that medical students carried infections from autopsy dissection rooms to delivery rooms and initiated a policy of strict handwashing with chlorinated lime water. The death rate then dropped dramatically, to around 1%.

The first edition of the journal of the Society of Viennese Physicians.
The first edition of the journal of the Society of Viennese Physicians. Photograph: Christie’s Images Ltd 2021

Semmelweis lectured on his discovery, The Origin of Puerperal Fever, in 1849. His colleague Ferdinand von Hebra published details of Semmelweis’ discovery in the journal of the Society of Viennese Doctors the following year, in the comparing in importance to the discovery of the smallpox vaccine and urging other members of the medical community to adopt their own handwashing procedures. A first edition of the newspaper will be auctioned by Christie’s next week, with an indicative price of £ 12,000 to £ 18,000.

Semmelweis’ ideas met with resistance during his life. He eventually lost his job and died in a mental institution at the age of 47 in 1865. His story was told by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his book Semmelweis: A Fictional Biography. And last year, actor Mark Rylance planned to bring his life to the stage, until Covid got in the way.

Ahead of the auction, Christie’s called Semmelweis’ discovery a “period creation” and “one of the greatest achievements in the history of medicine”.

“Dr Ignaz Semmelweis’ discovery of the role of handwashing in preventing the spread of disease is now undisputed, but his methods were rejected and ridiculed at the time,” said Christie specialist Mark Wiltshire . “His genius was to notice what no one else was doing.

A letter from Edward Jenner from 1801 apologizing for the delay in shipping supplies of his new smallpox vaccine.
A letter from Edward Jenner from 1801 apologizing for the delay in shipping supplies of his new smallpox vaccine. Photograph: Christie’s Images Ltd 2021

Christie’s is also set to auction a letter from Edward Jenner, the British surgeon who discovered the smallpox vaccine, with a target price of £ 4,000 to £ 6,000. In the letter, Jenner apologizes to a Mr. Long – likely William Long, a doctor from London – for the delay in shipping supplies of his new vaccine.

“Dr. Jenner presents his compliments to Mr. Long and regrets that it is not in his power to send him a vaccine virus today that he can count on, but Mr. Long can rest assured that he will be sent soon. as possible, “wrote Jenner in the Letter of 1801, adding,” Dr. J is happy to see that his little Patient has gone through the Cowpox so pleasantly. “

Five years earlier, Jenner had noticed that milkmaids who contracted cowpox were immune to the more deadly smallpox. On May 14, 1796, he scratched the liquid from a smallpox blister in the arm of his gardener’s son, injecting him shortly afterwards with smallpox. No disease developed and Jenner continued to conduct further trials, including on her 11-month-old son, releasing details of his discovery two years later.

Wiltshire said the two documents, in particular Jenner’s apology for a delay in vaccine supply, “feel particularly familiar right now.”

“These books and manuscripts are incredibly relevant to the international situation today – they take us to the origins of the discoveries that lie at the heart of the battle against Covid-19,” he said. “In each case, these findings were based on extraordinary insight and determined application of the scientific method. Given their importance in the global battle against Covid-19, the giant strides made by Dr Jenner and Dr Semmelweis now appear greater than ever.


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