FACT CHECK: Was The Inventor Of Hand Washing ‘Thrown In A Mental Institution’ For His Discovery?

Hannah Hudnall | Fact Check Reporter

A post shared on Facebook claims the doctor who discovered that hand washing helped prevent the spread of disease was thrown in an insane asylum for his idea.

Verdict: Misleading

While Ignaz Semmelweis’ discovery may have played an indirect role in his eventual commitment to an asylum in 1865, it was not the direct cause, according to experts.

Fact Check:

In 1846, Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, started a job at the General Hospital in Vienna and set out to figure out why so many women in the maternity ward were dying from puerperal fever, according to NPR. After much trial and error, Semmelweis hypothesized that “cadaverous particles” were being transferred from the medical students’ cadavers to the women giving birth whom they treated, the outlet reported.

In 1847, he began requiring his medical staff to wash their hands with a chloride solution, a bleaching agent and a disinfectant, according to the Embryo Project at Arizona State University. The result was a dramatic decrease in the number of puerperal fever deaths, proving the life-saving power of hand washing, NPR reported. For this reason, Semmelweis is often referred to as the “father of hand hygiene.”  

The post shared on Facebook includes an 1858 photograph of Semmelweis paired with an image of people washing their hands and text that reads, “The doctor who discovered that hand washing prevented the spread of disease was thrown in a Mental Institution for his crazy idea.”(RELATED: Did NBC News Report That The Creator Of The Crab Rangoon Died?)

It is misleading to say Semmelweis’ discovery was the direct cause of his commitment to an asylum, according to experts and established history. An article about his life published by PBS explains that Semmelweis was committed to an asylum in 1865, more than a decade after his discovery, after exhibiting erratic behavior and suffering a mental breakdown. The cause of the breakdown is a matter of debate, but possible causes include Alzheimer’s, syphilis, bipolar disorder, blood poisoning and sepsis, according to the article.

“The cause of Semmelweis’s mental illness that caused him to be admitted to the Lower Austrian Asylum for ‘Lunatics’ has been hotly disputed,” said Nicholas Kadar, author of “Ignaz Semmelweis and the Vienna School of Medicine,” in an email to Check Your Fact. “The best evidence suggests that he was suffering from an acute psychosis induced by an acute infection he contracted through a cut finger. At that time women were examined internally without gloves & obstetricians were exposed to all sorts of infections, including syphilis.”

Kadar concluded by saying, “There is no link to his admission & his discovery.” Dr. David Wright, Canada Research Chair at McGill University and researcher of the history of mental illness, agreed with Kadar, writing in an email to Check Your Fact the following:

The suggestion that he was admitted to a lunatic asylum solely because of his discovery is ridiculous. That is not how asylum admission protocols worked in the mid-1800s. He would have been evaluated by medically-trained individuals, who would have taken a history of his mental troubles (from family, kin etc.), interviewed him, and made a judgement about whether he would benefit from institutional treatment. This admission protocols also had legal oversight, to prevent malicious and capricious institutional confinement.

At least one academic paper, however, suggests the hand washing discovery played a role in Semmelweis’ eventual placement in the asylum. Sonja Schreiner, an Austrian academic and author of the academic paper “Ignaz Semmelweis: a victim of harassment?“, theorizes the rejection Semmelweis faced when touting his hand washing idea was an important factor in his later mental breakdown.

“Influential people did not believe in his discovery or worked against him (silently using his methods),” said Schreiner in an email to Check Your Fact. “That led – after years of disappointment, disbelief and anger – to a severe psychosomatic reaction.” In this way, his discovery may have played an indirect role in his eventual placement in the asylum.

Semmelweis died at the aforementioned asylum in August 1865 after being beaten by the asylum’s guards, according to PBS.

Hannah Hudnall

Fact Check Reporter