Pitt’s School of Public Health welcomes students with opera about obstetrician who championed hand-washing – TribLIVE

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With uncertainty hanging over the campus during the pandemic, the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health was kicking around socially distanced ideas of how to welcome students back.

Thats when the school hit upon the notion that a screening of a modern opera about the father of sanitation in medicine would be a perfect midsummer event.

On Wednesday evening, Pitt is holding a virtual watch party featuring a performance of a music-theater opera called Semmelweis. Its about an outspoken 19th-century Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis, who said doctors could prevent the spread of germs by washing their hands. While it would seem like an obvious idea, Semmelweis was attacked for it.

The work, which was produced by the Budapest Operetta Theatre and Bartok Plusz Opera Festival, was created by American composer Raymond J. Lustig, Irish-American librettist Matthew Doherty and Hungarian director Martin Boross.

The presentation of the recorded performance begins at 6:30 p.m. followed by a live question-and-answer session with Lustig and Matt Gray, director of American Opera Projects.

The School of Public Health has new students scheduled to start in the fall and we decided that we needed to interact with them with some actual programming in the summer in light of whats going on, said Cindy Bryce, a Pitt associate professor of health policy and management and associate dean for student affairs at the School of Public Health. We thought the Semmelweis performance would be perfect for a virtual get-together.

In true operatic tradition, Semmelweis life story is both inspiring and tragic. Much like his contemporaries, English physician John Snow and French biologist Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis was known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures.

During the mid-19th century, childbed fever was common in hospitals, including Vienna General Hospital where Semmelweis worked in the obstetrical clinic. The clinics doctors wards had a 10% mortality rate, three times the mortality rate of midwives wards.

Realizing that doctors hands were infected as they came straight to the delivery room from other work such as autopsies, Semmelweis urged the practice of hand washing with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847.

Semmelweis published a book about his findings and hand washing reduced the mortality rate to below 1%. But some doctors were offended by the idea that they should have to wash their hands and rejected it.

Prior to Semmelweis, if you were a cultured, educated physician in all the major centers of Europe, you did whatever you wanted when it came to child birth, said Dr. David N. Finegold, the Pitt professor of human genetics who proposed the Semmelweis opera showing. You could come from a post-mortem examination and without washing your hands, deliver a baby. With the institution of hand-washing, the mortality rate dropped dramatically. But Semmelweis was ridiculed for that.

Semmelweis died in 1865 after being institutionalized for a nervous breakdown.

You can imagine the urgency he must have felt, pushing extra hard to get people to listen to him and getting extra frustrated when people didnt, said Lustig, the composer.

Lustig explained that the incentive for denial was very strong among 19th-century doctors.

Semmelweis was directly pointing to the doctors hands as the cause of many hundreds of thousands of deaths over the years. I empathize with Semmelweis but I also empathize with those who must have found it incredibly hard to accept what he was trying to tell people, that their own hands had been the cause of deaths, Lustig said.

And Lustig sees parallels between what happened in Semmelweis time and what American society is going through during the current pandemic.

We see it today, all the time people sort of wanting to continue a certain behavior because if they can continue it, it must never have been the cause. Therefore they have nothing to worry about.

Finegold said some comparisons can even be made between Semmelweis and infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Fauci is politically correct, Finegold said. Semmelweis stood up for whats right and didnt have to be as politically correct to retain his position. He recognized the problem and was able to implement things that might make it better and they did. Fauci knows what will make it better and says it but he doesnt have the power (to implement things).

Lustig said he was inspired to compose Semmelweis by imagining what he must have gone through.

Thats really what went into our work is trying to understand what its like to be that person thats got this piece of news that nobody wants to hear, this very negative light bulb that went off in his head, and dealing with trying to convince people and at the same time to turn the ship as quickly as possible before many more women and their babies die on his watch, Lustig said.

He must have been haunted and every day that went by that he couldnt convince people must have been torture for him.

Tonights event is open to anyone who is interested. To register for the Semmelweis watch party, go to publichealth.pitt.edu/semmelweis.

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or pguggenheimer@triblive.com.

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