The Semmelweis Reflex (famous only in death)

Revolutionaries play on a different timeline.  They see further and their ideas live longer.  Pushing past ridicule and ritual they open up new worlds so that when they die, instead of being forgotten, they are immortalized.

Names like: Van Gogh, Galileo, Dickinson, Tesla, and Edgar Allen Poe come to mind.  But what all these names also have in common is that they belong to those who found no fame in life, but only in death.  We may remember them as triumphant revolutionaries, but their lives were filled with more defeats than victories and their “great works” were their unhealthy obsessions.

With the passing of time, their passions were validated, but to those apart of their lives; these works were the mad ramblings and scribblings of a lost son or daughter.

Their defeats came to them at the hands of a common human reaction coined the Semmelweis Reflex,” which describes the human instinct to adamantly deny evidence of new ideas that contradict the popular established norms or paradigms.

The earth is flat.  Animals don’t evolve.  Your art sucks.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who gives the reflex its name, was a Hungarian physician in the mid 1800s and may just be the reason you are alive today.

If you ever wondered who first had the idea for hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, or disinfectant, well that was Semmelweis.  Basically this guy invented hand washing.

Handwash Semmelweis

As the father of antiseptic science, he was the first to hypothesize that disease could be spread through touch via “infectious material” on the skin.  This might seem like a simple idea to us now, but only 200 years ago people believed disease came from bad smells or an imbalance of bodily fluids.  Mankind had no idea that germs even existed or how sickness was transmitted.

Dr. Semmelweis came to this revolutionary discovery by making a astute observation at the hospital in which he worked.  This hospital, like many others in those days, had both a large maternity ward and a morgue.  Thus, due to understaffing and ignorance, doctors would routinely handle both patients and cadavers in the same day without washing their hands.

Some of these doctors at Semmelweis’s hospital cut themselves while handling the dead bodies and contracted a feverish disease; a very similar disease was also found in many mothers in the maternity ward after giving birth.  Semmelweis had a hunch that these two diseases were in fact the same.

The disease is now called Puerperal Fever but back then it was referred to as childbed fever.

Through trial and error, Dr. Semmelweis was able to come up with a chlorinated lime solution that cleaned the skin of any “particles” causing disease.  He did this without any knowledge that germs existed or any understanding of why his methods worked.

It would not be until after Semmelweis’s death that Louis Pasteur’s “Germ Theory” would prove that micro-organisms like bacteria are the culprits of this transmission.

wash hands

Nevertheless, Dr. Semmelweis did notice that if he added a hand washing step in between the morgue and maternity ward, he could essentially eliminate a disease that was previously killing almost 20% of his post pregnancy patients.

This was a incredible feat!  Seriously, the man simply told doctors to wash their hands and he saved hundreds of lives a year.

What was next?  The good Doctor wanted to share this discovery with the world.  So he raced all over Europe to different hospitals to give talks and published papers on his discovery.  In his mind the evidence was too powerful to ignore and he was destined to be the golden boy of 1800’s medicine.

But instead he found nothing but rejection and resentment from doctors across the world who were insulted that Semmelweis was implying that they were the reason for their patients sickness.

Semmelweis was essentially telling physicians that they had been responsible for hundreds of patients deaths…

One very skeptical physician even rebuked,

“It seems improbable that enough infective matter or vapor could be secluded around the fingernails to kill a patient.” –Carl Edvard Marius Levy

And so, instead of glorious ascension, Ignaz Semmelweis fell into depression, mental instability and was eventually admitted against his will into a mental institution.  There he ironically died of an infection or “blood poisoning” contracted after the guards gave him a especially bad beating leading to open wounds.

Semmelweis coin

Semmelweis died thinking himself a failure.

He had no clue that his ideas would go on to inspire Pasteur’s “Germ Theory” of disease and give us the knowledge needed to combat disease in a way unseen in human history.  He would then be remembered as the “father of Antiseptic Science” and have hospitals and universities named after him.  He would receive more praise in death than any humble Hungarian Physician would expect in a lifetime.

But does that change the story for Semmelweis?  Does that make his decent into insanity and tragedy any less painful for him?  No, Semmelweis is long gone and any adulation thrown his way in unheard from the grave.

Don’t get me wrong, it is great to honor our histories heroes so that people can remember the sacrifices made for progress.  However; what have we missed out on from the time lost ignoring these revolutionaries or driving them to early graves?

Instead of being reactive to the Semmelweis’s of the world and giving them praise once they are gone; perhaps the answer is to fight against this “Semmelweis Reflex” everyday so that we wont miss out on the next great revolutionaries.










By | 2016-02-11T06:28:43-08:00 February 9th, 2016|Biology, Featured, Philosophy, Science|0 Comments

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