NYS Health Department Dedicates Statue to Physician Who Championed Handwashing

"This statue will serve as a reminder of a practice that is near and dear to public health: the simple, yet vital, act of handwashing to help prevent the spread of illness," said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. "We are honored to be among the recipients chosen for this display as we continue our efforts to encourage best practices for infection control."

The New York State Department of Health held a ceremony Aug. 24 at the entrance of its Wadsworth Center Biggs Laboratory to unveil a statue of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who saw in 1847 that disinfection from handwashing drastically reduced mortality in maternity wards at Vienna General Hospital in Austria – a practice he championed until his death despite much criticism from the medical establishment, according to the department, which reported that the statue is one of 20 that have been given to institutions from Tokyo to Los Angeles by the Semmelweis University to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the doctor's birth in 1818.

"This statue will serve as a reminder of a practice that is near and dear to public health: the simple, yet vital, act of handwashing to help prevent the spread of illness," said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. "We are honored to be among the recipients chosen for this display as we continue our efforts to encourage best practices for infection control."

"At a time when medicine was becoming more empirically based, Dr. Semmelweis noticed that the mortality rate for mothers who were dying of childbed fever, or puerperal fever, in Hungarian maternity wards in the mid-1800s was much higher for women who were treated by doctors and medical students than that of women who were treated by midwives," the department's news release stated. "The causal link to handwashing was discovered when it was realized that a treating doctor, who had also contracted and died of childbed fever, had also been dissecting cadavers, a job that midwives did not perform. From this information, Semmelweis hypothesized that 'cadaverous particles' were being transferred by the doctors performing the dissections to the delivery room and thus infecting the mothers. When he began requiring all doctors and medical students to wash their hands to disinfect themselves before treating patients, the rates of maternal mortality were drastically reduced."

Those attending the unveiling ceremony included H.E. Ambassador Istvan Pasztor, Consul General, New York; and Dr. Jonathan Jakus, Director Obstetrics and Gynecology Montefiore Nyack Hospital and U.S. Representative, Semmelweis Memorial Committee.

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