The physician Ignaz Semmelweis, who worked in the mid-19th century, suggested something so crazy that at the time he was deemed a lunatic. He suggested that doctors, instead of healing the sick, were instead causing deaths because they were not washing their hands. Semmelweis, Hungarian-born, was working at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria delivering babies and caring for the mothers who were dying in numbers after childbirth. After studying the death of a colleague, he came up with a hypothesis that if doctors washed their hands in a chloride solution before caring for patients, deaths would be prevented. At the time, doctors were going directly from studying cadavers to patients’ bedsides. However, the hospital administration did not accept his hypothesis and he retreated in frustration to his home country where he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an insane asylum, where he died in 1865.

This story is dramatized in SEMMELWEIS, a striking short film written, directed, photographed, and produced by Jim Berry in 2001 with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Berry made the film as his thesis project for NYU’s Film Program. The entire film is available to watch below and exists in the Science & Film archive of Sloan-supported short films available to watch any time:

SEMMELWEIS won the Craft Award at the Short Run Film Festival and the Short Film Prize at the Telluride Indiefest in 2002, and the Bronze Bear at the Festival of Nations in Austria in 2003. Berry is turning a feature-length script about Semmelweis into a graphic novel, and in 2009 he published the prologue.

Learn more about SEMMELWEIS in the Sloan-Awarded Films Section.