Before Their Time

Sometimes, science is a slow process. Modern discoveries require large collaborative efforts from researchers working long hours, observing and thinking. As a result, despite how fundamental the research might be to various fields, many projects that graduate students and professors undertake will be lost to history. Gone are the days where scientists wrote doctoral dissertations filled with theories and postulates that echo across generations (like Edwin Hall did with his PhD thesis on what is now called the Hall Effect). However, even in the days where being a great thinker only required some extra cash and a propensity toward asking why, a handful of scientists probably faded away into obscurity. A couple of unlucky (or lucky, depending on whether you’re a beaker-half-full kind of person) researchers got the recognition they deserved but not before the cold claws of death pried them away from their lab bench. These scientific pioneers will never know that the impact of their work, a sad reality indeed.

Ignaz Semmelweis

If you walked into any hospital in the 19th century, it’s likely that the words “childbed fever” may have bounced off your eardrum. Infection of the female reproductive organs is now known to cause childbed fever, but during the mid-1800s, the origin of the fever was unknown, and the mortality rate for those infected peaked at 35%. In steps the “savior of mothers”, as he is called today: Ignaz Semmelweis.

Semmelweis started looking into childbed fever when he began his work in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, where he was appointed to a position that today would be called “chief resident”. Semmelweis’s command covered one of two clinics. The First Clinic was a teaching hospital where medical students and doctors would tend to patients. The Second Clinic delivered children into the hands of midwives. At Semmelweis’s clinic, the mortality rate due to childbed fever was 10%, whereas the other clinic averaged less than 4% deaths. Women would literally beg to not be placed in the First Clinic, and some would even choose the streets over a hospital bed to avoid potential infection.

Semmelweis believed that he and his students should have been at least as competent as the midwives and was further perplexed by the situation knowing that both hospitals essentially used the same birthing procedures. He began a very systematic process to eliminate any variables that could cause the major difference, even going as far as to monitor the religious practices used at both facilities. It wasn’t until his own friend died from a similar infection after being accidentally poked by a student’s scalpel did Semmelweis figure out this issue. Semmelweis explained that he and his students carried “cadaverous particles” from autopsies that they would perform as teaching tools. Basically, the doctors weren’t washing their hands after touching dead bodies.

By introducing hand-washing as a policy, the First Clinic reduced mortality rates of childbed fever to about 1%. But biology is a complex beast, and physicians at the time knew this as a basic tenet. They claimed that Semmelweis’s panacea was hogwash; diseases can be caused by a number of variables, and spending that extra minute to wash hands wasn’t going to change a thing. Naturally, Semmelweis was incensed by their indifference, but his anger did more harm than good. Eventually, while suffering from deep bouts of depression, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum. He passed away tragically (and slightly ironically, too) when a gangrenous wound took his life.

Ludwig Boltzmann

In the late 1800s, physicists were arguing about whether the fundamental building blocks of the universe was energy or matter. Boltzmann was an academic in Vienna (apparently a great place to be forgotten in the 1800s) and spent much of his final years as a professor joining these atom vs. energy debates. Among his remarkable achievements in physics was his kinetic theory of gases, which stated that there was some distribution (rather than a single, finite value) for molecular speeds in gases. This theory relied on the existence of atoms, which was not popular for physicists at the time.

Great physicists were on Boltzmann’s side, like James Clerk Maxwell and Josiah Willard Gibbs, and chemists were receptive to the idea of atoms thanks to John Dalton’s atomic theory. However, the physics community in Europe wouldn’t even let Boltzmann publish unless he conceded that molecules and atoms were theoretical constructs. Boltzmann suffered from what is likely believed to be an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder and died in 1906. Only two years later, Jean Baptiste Perrin watched some particles in solution and was able to give experimental evidence to Boltzmann’s predictions.


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