What we’ve all been through in this pandemic has sparked renewed interest in the work of 19th-century physician Ignaz Semmelweis. He is considered to be the first person to find a correlation between hand-washing and disease prevention.
Semmelweis’ discovery was the subject of a recent Google “doodle.” It’s also the basis of a 2018 chamber opera, which is currently streaming online.
Semmelweis focuses on the pivotal event in the Hungarian-born physician’s life. A mysterious illness was claiming the lives of mothers in maternity wards across Europe, including Vienna General Hospital, where Semmelweis worked.
The obstetrician noticed that the mothers who were treated by midwives were for the most part spared from so-called “childbed fever.” It’s hard to believe, but hand-washing was not a common practice among physicians of the day, but it was routine for midwives. Semmelweis immediately required all medical personnel to wash their hands before examinations, and infection rates plummeted by 90%.
Sadly for Semmelweis, his discovery was rejected and ridiculed by his peers and the medical community as a whole. He was fired by the hospital, and Semmelweis returned to his native Hungary.
History ended up proving Semmelweis right, but the composer of the opera, Raymond Lustig, said the medical establishment’s renunciation deeply affected the doctor, and it is an important element in the work.
“We all suffer from this,” said Lustig. “We all have a lot of trouble seeing into something we don’t want to see. And in particular, if you got physicians having to face up to the reality that their hands were instruments of communicating a deadly disease to countless women, that’s a very tough pill to swallow.”
Rather than a biographical look at Semmelweis, Lustig says he was more interested in an abstract, symbolic approach for his work. So he asked poet and longtime friend Matthew Doherty to write the libretto. Doherty said at first, the assignment was a little daunting.
“It felt early on that, well, I’m just writing a biography,” said Doherty. “But the biography is already written, you know, so what am I doing here? It became much more interesting to me once I could get into the fact that what I was writing had some kind of value, there could be some kind of thread that could be followed, even apart from the biography.”
The work is set in Vienna in the midst of the epidemic. A troubled Semmelweis veers between reality and fantasy as he is tormented by a female choir. Lustig says the chorus takes on many roles in the work.
“So, there’s the midwives, I think who are very much represented by the women, but there’s also, you know obviously the dead are there, so the choir is this kind of a ghostly multi-apparition. It’s midwives, it’s doctors, it’s mothers, it’s women about to deliver.”
The opera was completed in 2018, well before the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Doherty sees plenty of parallels between the controversy over Semmelweis’ work and the politics of the current pandemic.
“To say that this was leading to the deaths of all of these women was really a political non-starter,” explained Doherty. “There were people who had to put forth a certain truth that was really for the benefit of the empire, and what was actually happening was not relevant. And that’s certainly something we see going on right now.”
Semmelweis had its world premiere in Budapest, where Ignaz Semmelweis is a household name, to rave reviews. That 2018 production is now available to stream online through the end of May at Doctor-Semmelweis.com.