Hungary lies due east of Austria, and like the latter was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I. However, after that conflict it became an independent state and remained so until World War II, when it was occupied by Germany. It was liberated by the U.S.S.R. in 1945, and has remained in close association with the latter ever since. From our point of view it was in Budapest that the great 19th century physician, Ignác Philipp Semmelweis (1818-1865) was born. This event is commemorated by a very good medical museum there. It is important that we point out here, that crossing the border into Hungary is relatively easy as compared to crossing into its neighbor Czechoslovakia. A visa is required, but it is not hard to get, and there are a minimum of formalities at the border.
Location – 260 kilometers east and slightly south of Vienna.
Train – Direct from Vienna and many other cities.
Road – Take the road east out of Vienna towards Batislava, but at Schwechat take the right fork to Bruck and the Hungarian border. Inside Hungary, pick up Route 1 to Gyor and Komarno. Then follow Route 10 to
There is, however, another, and in our opinion a much more
pleasant way to reach Budapest. That is to take the hydrofoil from Vienna
down the Danube to Budapest. It goes daily and takes about 5 hours. It
is a very comfortable and remarkably beautiful journey, which we cannot
recommend too strongly. Budapest consists of the twin towns of Buda
and Pest, and is one of the major cities of eastern Europe with a long and
important history, closely associated with the ups and downs of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire. It suffered severe damage in the final days of
World War II, but much of this has been repaired, and today with its
location on both sides of the Danube, it is really a very impressive city
and a pleasant place to visit.
Semmelweis Medical Historical Museum
I, Aprod U. 1-3
Tuesday – Sunday, 10.00 – 16.00
Small charge for admission.
This museum is on the Buda side of the Danube, and situated at the base of the hill on which stands the former Royal Palace.
Ignác Semmelweis was born in 1818 into a lower middle class family in Buda. He received a reasonably good elementary education at the Catholic Gymnasium in Buda. He later attended the University of Pest, and finally received a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1844. At that time Vienna was a major center of medicine, and Semmelweis was determined to stay there. It was fortunate for the future of medicine that he did, and he managed to get an appointment in one of two obstetrical clinics in the Vienna General Hospital (see under Vienna, Austria).
Here a situation existed which seems almost incredible today. The first clinic, to which Semmelweis came, was operated as a teaching clinic for medical students, and in this the maternal death rate was over 13% from puerperal fever. This is now known to be an infectious disease of the female reproductive tract, commonly called “childbed fever,” but in those days its cause was unknown and the outcome was nearly always fatal. The second clinic in the hospital was run by midwives and for the teaching of midwives. Here the death rate from puerperal fever was only 2%. This was in 1847 and everyone was baffled by the phenomenon, but Semmelweis made a crucial observation and deduction. The observation was, that in the first clinic the medical students went straight from the autopsy room (where they did anatomical dissections on cadavers) to the obstetrical clinic where they examined patients, without any washing of hands on the way! This of course was not the case in the second clinic operated by midwives, and Semmelweis concluded that the medical students were in some way carrying the infection to the patients. Consequently he ordered that everyone attending an obstetrical case should first wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime. This seems almost common sense today, but it represents one of the great steps in the development of modern medicine. The results of this procedure were dramatic, for within one month the death rate in the first clinic dropped to that in the second.
One might have thought that with some conclusive evidence of success, Semmelweis’ ideas would have prevailed, but it was not the case. This was before the time of Louis Pasteur’s (see under France) theories on the microbial nature of infectious diseases. Today, Semmelweis is generally considered the direct precursor of Louis Pasteur. His ideas were not welcomed by the conservative medical community in Vienna, and he was even laughed at and ridiculed.
The rest of his career is really insignificant. In disgust he returned to his native Budapest, and eventually received an appointment at the University of Pest in 1855, instituting his hygienic procedures with good reuslts, but with little recognition. This was true also of his great work “Die Aetiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettifiebers” (The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever) published as a book in 1861. It was not well received and had poor foreign reviews. After this Semmelweis became gradually mentally ill, and in 1865 returned once again to Vienna where he died shortly afterwards. He was buried in Vienna, but his body was returned to his native Budapest in 1965.
Semmelweis is a tragic figure in medicine, but our debt to him is enormous, and he paved the way for the triumphs of Louis Pasteur.
The Semmelweis museum is the Hungarian peoples’ tribute to their great son, and it is maintained by the state. The building was the Semmelweis family home. Ignác was born there, and is now buried there in a vault in the wall of the courtyard. The medical museum itself is extensive and one of the finest in the world. Its emphasis is of course on Semmelweis and his work, but in fact this is only a minor part of the total number of displays. In addition to the Semmelweis displays, there are exhibits on primitive medicine, Chinese, Greek, Roman and Islamic medicine, Renaissance medicine, the development and importance of the microscope, and the gradual advance of medicine in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, etc. There is also a magnificent medical historical library, archives and portraits, etc. It is pleasant to record that the museum staff carries on an active program of research into the history of medicine. All in all a fine tribute to the memory of Ignác Semmelweis, and well worth the effort of a visit.