More background info: Ignaz Semmelweis, sometimes referred to as “the saviour of mothers”, is today credited with having been one of the greats in the history of medicine, in particular for his discovery of the causes of – and protection against – so-called “childbed fever”, of which in the mid-19th century many women died shortly after giving birth. At the time, however, he was largely ignored and ridiculed and eventually banished to an asylum in Vienna where he died a broken man (the cause of death is given in various sources as a gangrenous hand wound and/or syphilis).
Semmelweis was born in 1818 in Budapest
into a bourgeois ethnic German family who ran a grocery business in the Tabán area of Buda, namely in the very building which now houses the museum. At the time Budapest was part of the Austro
Ignaz went to study in Vienna
and it was also here that he later worked at an obstetrical hospital. Here he started looking into and theorizing about the causes of the disease ‘puerperal fever’, informally better known as “childbed fever”, of which as many as 10% of the women died in this hospital shortly after having delivered their newborn babies. Semmelweis believed there was a connection with hygiene and promoted the use by doctors of disinfectants for washing their hands before examining patients. The application of this procedure did indeed lower the mortality rate amongst women after childbirth to around 1%, later even to 0%. This was at a time before the exact bacterial causes of diseases like this were known, and Semmelweis could not produce any clear-cut scientific explanation for his figures. Doctors in more authoritative positions hence brushed his ideas aside and even ridiculed him for them.
Even though his writings, and those of his students, were circulated around Europe, his explanation of childbed fever and how to prevent it did was not as well-received as Semmelweis had hoped. Eventually he also lost his position at the hospital in 1849 and was only able to continue teaching as a ‘docent’ with limited access to the hospital’s facilities.
Frustrated by these developments he moved back to Budapest
in 1850 and obtained a position at an obstetrics clinic there, where childbed fever was also rampant. Again he drastically reduced mortality rates through his disinfectant methods. Yet his teachings found more fertile ground abroad than in either Vienna or Budapest.
In the 1860s Semmelweis’s mental health deteriorated, he published scathing open letters belittling and openly insulting colleagues who did not adopt his teachings, and in public he increasingly became an embarrassment. Why that was so is not entirely clear, it may have had to do with his drinking, or could have been a medical condition such as Alzheimer’s (then not yet known as such), or it may have been due to third-stage syphilis.
In 1865 he was lured into and locked up in a mental asylum back in Vienna
(home to the infamous “Narrenturm
”), where he was mistreated and restrained when he tried to escape. Just two weeks later he passed away. The cause of death was determined to have been blood poisoning. This could well have been from a hand wound that wasn’t properly disinfected and became gangrenous. It’s no small irony, and a great tragedy, that a pioneering advocate of the importance of washing one’s hands and using disinfectants would die of gangrene. To what degree syphilis may have played a role is unclear but it probably had nothing to do with the cause of death. Semmelweis was initially buried in Vienna.
For the next few decades his significance remained unacknowledged in Vienna and Budapest, where childbed fever was once again claiming lives at a much elevated rate.
It wasn’t until long after his death that Semmelweis was rehabilitated, especially in the wake of the legendary French scientist Louis Pasteur basically corroborating what Semmelweis had reasoned, regarding infectious diseases like childbed fever and the importance of disinfectants. (Of course Pasteur is also the inventor of the ‘pasteurization’ method.)
In 1894, when Semmelweis was finally being recognized as one of the greats of medical history, his body was exhumed and taken from Vienna
back to Budapest
where he was laid to rest in a specially designed grand stone tomb in the prestigious Kerepesi Cemetery
His birth house was converted into a museum, and in 1964 Semmelweis’s remains were moved again, this time to be buried in the garden courtyard of his birth house, thus coming “full circle” so to speak.
What there is to see: When you arrive at the entrance to the historic building that the museum is housed in, you are “greeted” by a life-size skeleton replica sitting just behind the glass door, thus kind of setting the scene.
You have to ascend a flight of stairs to the first floor and walk along an open-air gallery with views of the courtyard before you get to the entrance to the permanent exhibition.
As I was purchasing my ticket a softly-spoken middle-aged man offered to give an aural introduction, which I happily accepted, and he delivered, in good English, a synopsis of the historical background of the life and significance of Semmelweis (see above
He then sent me off to explore the exhibition unaccompanied. To my slight surprise and great delight he not only allowed photography but even encouraged it (this is highly unusual for medical museums, which more often than not enforce a strictly policed no-photography rule).
The exhibition is old-school in that it relies primarily on objects and text – in both Hungarian and decent enough English. But there are no touchscreens or videos or other such modern multimedia additions. I actually prefer it when the exhibits are allowed to remain centre stage.
The exhibition begins with ancient medical history, going back to antiquity even, with display cabinets about medical beliefs in ancient Rome, Egypt, China and the Americas.
Among the darker artefacts on display are a shrink head from South America, and in the Egyptian section, as you would expect, mummies, or parts thereof. There’s a full-body bird mummy, said to be a raven (though it looks rather small for that), a blackened female mummy foot and – the most morbid of it all – a head of a human mummy (without bandages, looking straight back at you!).
Further down the first hall is another human head, this time a skull. And here we learn that this is in fact a replica of the skull of Ignaz Semmelweis himself. Apparently he underwent a post-mortem after he’d been exhumed, including a look at his brain. Hence you can see the cranium was sawn off and put back on later.
Near the skull display are also reconstructions of the house’s interior, namely Semmelweis’s study, with a painting of Ignaz as a young boy hanging on the wall, and part of the living room. The furniture is said to be original. A display cabinet outside this room shows film posters and the like about movies that have been made about Semmelweis.
You then enter the second hall, from where a side room branches off. The latter contains a reconstruction of an early 19th century pharmacy with beautifully designed wooden cabinets. The room is cordoned off by a rope, though, so you can only peek in from the doorway.
Within the gloomier second hall some remarkable objects are on display, including some anatomical wax models (‘moulages’) showing various diseased organs. And then there is a full-body model of a young female with her abdomen and chest opened up. It very much reminded me of a similar such model on display at the Josephinum
Other items to be seen here include two dentist chairs, one a fairly modern example with electric drills from the 1960s, whereas the older one has a foot-pedal-and-wheel contraption for powering a mechanical drill.
There’s also an early X-ray machine and examples of early X-ray images of hands. Other hands on display include a moulage of a gruesomely diseased hand and drawings of the inner workings of hand tendons (as they were believed to be at the time). I’m not entirely sure what the stuffed snake is doing in this room, though.
There’s a final third hall, more like a corridor, with displays of historical medical books, surgeon’s kits, obstetrics equipment and other medial contraptions, as well as china and glass containers of medicines and more such items. One noteworthy object I found was a replica skull on to which boundaries of areas of the brain supposedly responsible for various mental and psychological capacities are marked, such as sense of humour, spatial orientation, numeracy, cleverness, empathy, and even talent for parenting. Psychology and the understanding of brain functions have fortunately advanced a bit since then …
All in all, I found this museum a worthwhile addition to my itinerary on my third trip to Budapest in June 2022. It’s not very large, nor modern, but has a few remarkable artefacts and is enlightening about the special tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis. My only criticism would be that it has nothing about contemporary medicine. The most modern artefacts were a few bits from the 1960s. So it could do with a little update perhaps.
in the Tabán area of Budapest
’s 1st district just south of Buda Castle Hill; address: Apród utca 1-3
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to; inexpensive
Details: To get to the museum by public transport you can take bus line 105, which has a stop right by the museum, called Várkert Bazár. Nearby, tram lines 19 and 41 have a stop of the same name. The convenient bus line 5 provides a good connection to the Pest side of the city. Its stop closest to the museum is Döbrentei tér. Tram line 56 has a stop here too, from where it is only a short walk north to the museum.
Opening times: daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission half an hour before closing).
Admission: 1000 HUF (some concessions apply), free on the first Sunday of each month and on certain public holidays (15 March, 20 August, 23 October). There are also combination tickets with temporary exhibitions in another wing of the building.
Time required: I spent about 45 minutes in this museum, but those with a keener interest in all things medical will probably need longer; yet others might go through the exhibition much quicker.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Next door to the museum is exhibition called “1914-1922 – A New World Was Born”
, which naturally covers the years of WW1
and its aftermath.
Also fairly near, even walkable (or a couple of bus stops up the road), is the Hospital in the Rock
underneath the western side of Buda Castle Hill.
Otherwise there’s nothing else in the immediate vicinity – but see under Budapest
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The museum’s location at the foot of Buda Castle Hill
, one of Budapest
’s top general tourism attractions, makes a combination with this an obvious choice. To get up there you can either walk/climb, if you feel fit enough, or use the more convenient and popular funicular on the eastern side of the hill (reachable by bus line 105, one stop to Clark Ádám tér, or a ten-minute walk north along the Danube). Alternatively you can get bus line 16 from the western side of Castle Hill at Dózsa György tér.
- Semmelweis Museum 01 - sign on the outer facade
- Semmelweis Museum 02 - courtyard, upstairs
- Semmelweis Museum 03 - study
- Semmelweis Museum 04 - living room
- Semmelweis Museum 05 - pharmacy
- Semmelweis Museum 06 - South America
- Semmelweis Museum 07 - China
- Semmelweis Museum 08 - mummified raven and black female foot
- Semmelweis Museum 09 - mummified head from Egypt
- Semmelweis Museum 10 - replica of the exhumed and post-mortem examined skull of Semmelweis
- Semmelweis Museum 11 - tiny dissection model
- Semmelweis Museum 12 - hand mechanics
- Semmelweis Museum 13 - diseased hand
- Semmelweis Museum 14 - early hand X-rays
- Semmelweis Museum 15 - old X-ray machine
- Semmelweis Museum 16 - dentist chairs
- Semmelweis Museum 17 - moulages
- Semmelweis Museum 18 - full-body moulage of a woman with opened chest and abdomen
- Semmelweis Museum 19 - snake
- Semmelweis Museum 20 - second hall
- Semmelweis Museum 21 - apparently a precursor of the microscope
- Semmelweis Museum 22 - various contraptions
- Semmelweis Museum 23 - surgical kit
- Semmelweis Museum 24 - obstretics kit
- Semmelweis Museum 25 - annotated skull model
- Semmelweis Museum 26 - in film and books
- Semmelweis Museum 27 - guardian skeleton by the entrance