New York State Department of Health Unveils Statue to Honor Hungarian Physician Who Championed Handwashing to Prevent the Spread of Illness

Albany, NY (April 24, 2019) -- The New York State Department of Health held a ceremony today at the entrance of its Wadsworth Center Biggs Laboratory to unveil a statue of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who observed in 1847 that the practice of disinfection, or handwashing, drastically reduced mortality in maternity wards at Vienna General Hospital in Austria – a practice which he championed until his death despite much criticism from the medical establishment. The statue is one of 20 that have been gifted to institutions from Tokyo to Los Angeles by the Semmelweis University to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Dr. Semmelweis' 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."

Handwashing is often considered the most basic, yet effective, recommended protocol for preventing the spread of viruses like influenza or the norovirus that are easily passed from person to person. 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 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.

Joining Commissioner Zucker at today's unveiling ceremony were H.E. Ambassador Istvan Pasztor, Consul General, New York, and Dr. Jonathan Jakus, Director Obstetrics and Gynecology Montefiore Nyack Hospital, US Representative, Semmelweis Memorial Committee.

The CDC reminds healthcare professionals that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are the most effective products for reducing the number of germs, with antiseptic soaps and detergents the next most effective. Soap and water are recommended for cleaning visibly dirty hands after known or suspected exposure to pathogens such as Clostridium difficile orsuspected exposure to patients with infectious diarrhea during norovirus outbreaks.