Stephen G. Saupe - Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321; (320) 363-2782;

Gink & Go Talk About Science

 Setting:  Gink & Go are good friends who are studying biology.  They are up late in their dorm room after the first biology lecture studying.

Gink: Who is that Simmerbody character that Saupe was blabbering about today in biology class?
Go:  Semmelweis.  Not Simmerbody.  His name was Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis and he was a Hungarian physician in the mid 1800’s.
Gink: Whatever.  I love his name – Ignaz – but, like why should I care?
Go:  Good question.  Semmelweis realized that childbed fever, a disease, was common among women who delivered a baby in the hospital clinic.
Gink: Is that the disease caused by Streptococcus pyogenes?
Go:  Right, it’s the same one that killed Muppeteer Jim Henson and made the news as the “face-eating bacteria.”  
Gink: So what did this Semmelweis actually do?
Go:  Well, he realized that childbed fever, which was also called puerperal fever, was passed from physicians to their patients. 
Gink: How in the heck did he figure that out?
Go:  He had gotten his medical degree in obstetrics and midwifery from the university of Vienna in 1844.  He practiced at the Vienna General hospital that had two clinics.  He noted the following:  (check out the data in the table)  

  First Clinic

Second Clinic

Staffed by Med students & physicians Midwives
Mortality High


Day Patients admitted


Delivery practices Same Same
Other activities

Autopsies, exam sick patients, physicals exams

No autopsies 



So he wondered why there was a higher death rate in the First Clinic at the hospital?


Yeah right!  He figured it had to do with physicians transferring diseases particles from cadavers and infecting healthy patients

Gink: So what did he do?
Go:  He ordered the hospital staff to wash their hands with chloride of lime (calcium chloride) before examining any patient.
Gink: And did it work?
Go:  You bet.  The death rate in the First Clinic dropped like one of Saupe’s dumb jokes.  But the sad thing is that no one believed him.
Gink: You don’t mean that they stopped washing their hands and the women began to die again?
Go:  That’s right.
Gink: How come – didn’t he publish his work?
Go:  Not until it was too late and then it was rather incoherent.  
Gink: You mean like one of Saupe’s lectures?
Go:  Uh, right.  The other problem is that people were still not ready to abandon their miasma and spirit paradigm for the cause of disease.
Gink: Oh right – I forgot that he was working nearly two decades before Pasteur formulated the germ theory of disease.
Go:  Well,  it’s getting late so let’s answer these questions Saupe gave us for homework so we can hit the hay.


Groan (say it loudly)

Now, answer the following questions:

  1. What was the question Semmelweis asked? 

  2. What was Semmelweis’s hypothesis:  

  3. Identify at least two alternate hypotheses to explain the observations.

  4. Give a prediction based on the hypothesis using deductive logic: 
           IF ….                                           THEN … 

  5. Identify the “experiment” that Semmelweis performed to support/refute his hypothesis:

  6. What was the result of his experiment?

  7. What was the conclusion of this experiment?

  8. Use this as an example to discuss how society and prevailing paradigms influence science.

| SGS Home | Disclaimer | Biol 106 home | Biol 115 home | Biol 116 Home | Biol 308 home

Last updated: January 19, 2005     � Copyright by SG Saupe