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Zeitschrift der k. k. Gesellschaft der Aerzte

cadaveric contamination and puerperal fever

the first announcement of semmelweis’ seminal discovery

[SEMMELWEIS].  HEBRA, Ferdinand von.  Höchst wichtige Erfahrungen über die Ätiologie der in Gebäranstalten epidemischen Puerperalfiebern.  [with:] Fortzetzung der Erfahrungen über die Ätiologie … [in:] Zeitschrift der k. k. Gesellschaft der Aerzte zu Wien, volume IV, pages 242-244, and V, pages 64-65.  Vienna, Kaulfuss Witwe, Prandel & Comp., 1847 [-1848].

Two volumes. bound in three, 4to; old library stamps of the Medical Society, Donaueschingen to verso of titles; minimal foxing; excellent copies, uniformly bound in contemporary blue paste-paper boards, spine labels; protective acrylic sleeves; the entire volumes offered.

first printing of the first description of semmelweis’ epochal discovery of the septic character of puerperal fever, one of the greatest achievements in the history of medicine, and preceding the publication of his famous ätiologie by 14 years.

presented by hebra on these few pages, this announcement already contains the essence of semmelweis’ findings and recommendations.

‘As house officer of Vienna’s First Obstetrical Clinic, a training school for medical students, Semmelweis was eager to find the reason why the clinic exhibited a 13.10 percent mortality rate from puerperal fever, while the Second Obstetrical Clinic, which trained midwives, had a mortality rate over five times lower.

After the death of one of his friends from blood poisoning following a wound from an autopsy knife, Semmelweis made the connection between cadaveric contamination and puerperal fever, which displays a pathology similar to the septicaemia that had killed his friend.  He concluded that the doctors and students of the first Clinic carried the infection on their hands from the autopsy room to the maternity wards and conveyed it to their patients during manual examination.  He instituted a program of hand-washing in chlorinated lime between autopsy work and examination of patients; one month later, the First Clinic’s mortality rate had dropped by 10 percent.

‘Despite his success, Semmelweis refused to write up his results, and his friend Ferdinand von Hebra, editor of the Zeitschrift, finally wrote these two brief articles on his behalf’ (Norman Catalogue).

The second paper, contained in volume V of the journal, emphasises Semmelweis’ discovery to be of equal importance to that of small-pox inoculation by Edward Jenner.  Hebra concludes the article with an invitation to other physicians working in this field to conduct own experiments and submit their findings, whether in support of or contradiction to this discovery to the editors of the journal.

These volumes of the journal are extremely rare on the market, with the Friedman copy, sold by Sotheby’s, New York, in 2001, being the last recorded.

Garrison and Morton 6175; PMM 316b; Norman 1925.

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