Why do we so often reject the truth? (Ignaz Semmelweis – 2)

Professors at the faculty in 1863. Ignaz is standing at back with arm's folded. Picture: Jozsef Marastoni.

Professors at the faculty in 1863. Ignaz is standing at back with arm's folded. Picture: Jozsef Marastoni.

In 1847 Ignaz Semmelweis came up with an explanation for excessive deaths of mothers after child birth. Yesterday I chatted about how he ordered that doctors must wash their hands in an antiseptic solution before assisting with a birth, and the death rate dropped by a factor of ten.

This is a dramatic result. He repeated it over the years at two other maternity clinics. It was clearly saving lives.

The trouble was his colleagues would not accept his findings and refused to introduce antiseptic washing in their clinics. When Ignaz applied to renew his position at the Vienna General Hospital he lost the post to someone else. He was later offered an alternative post, but only if he agreed not to indulge in activities relating to his breakthrough findings. He left Vienna in disgust. He did manage to find a job elsewhere, but it took time and was both unpaid and fairly insignificant. The stress of his rejection seems to have led to some kind of extended breakdown. He became badly depressed and absent-minded, and by 1865 his behaviour in public became irritating and embarassing to other doctors.

After one colleague wrote a document referring him to a mental institution he was lured into the building. When he became suspicious and tried to resist he was beaten by guards, put in a straitjacket and dumped in a dark cell. Treatments he may have been exposed to included dousing with cold water and being forced to take a strong laxative. He died a couple of weeks later.

Why did doctors of the time refuse to accept his results? He had irrefutable experimental results to back up what he said.

His is not the only case in history when something new was proposed and shown clearly to be of value, but was rejected. What was going on?

Here are some thoughts about the Ignaz Semmelweis case:

He wanted to change things

We tend to resist all change. This needs a separate post.

He undermined established theory

In those days doctors based much of their treatment on the theory of ‘four humours’ : blood (air), yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth) and phlegm (water). There’s a Wikipedia article here. The main treatment for disease was bloodletting. Each case of any disease was considered unique. All you had to do was figure out the exact balance of humours needed in the ill person and get it sorted.

Imagine being a doctor then. Your entire training, and your career to date, have been based on this group of theories, and here comes some upstart, not even a professor, who is suggesting it’s wrong. The scoundrel even claims to have proof that your life’s work has been based on a lie. His ideas threaten your livelihood.  He’ll be lucky not to get lynched.

He was being offensive

Some doctors were offended by the mere suggestion they might need to wash their hands. A gentleman does not have dirty hands. It would not be appropriate for someone of his social class. (Of course this may be linked to the first point about change. We love to rationalise our stupidity.)

He could offer no scientific basis except that it worked

It would not be till Louis Pasteur’s work in the 1860s and beyond that a proper theory of germs was developed. Ignaz was one of the trailblazers who prepared the minds of scientists and doctors to receive Pasteur’s detailed work.

This should not have mattered, but it did. This argument continues to be used today.

He was misunderstood and misquoted

The theory was so revolutionary that it was misunderstood. He was suggesting that ‘dirt’ of a special kind too small to be visible with the naked eye was carrying disease from the dead to the living. Few people heard this directly from him, and perhaps because it didn’t make sense they changed his message when quoting him.

Something similar happened with Einstein’s relativity theory in that initially very few scientists could really get their heads round such strangeness. I grew up with the theory an accepted part of science and my mind was fertile ground for sowing it.

But then, Big Al’s approach to promoting his new ideas was quite different from that of Ignaz:

He failed to promote his discovery himself until it was too late

Ignaz refused to communicate his method properly to the great and the good of Vienna, and was reluctant to write a paper on the subject. Naturally he was misunderstood and misquoted. Couple this with the other factors above and we may begin to understand why no one in a senior position came to him to check the facts and then champion his cause.

It is notso much  how good your ideas and valuable your results as how well you communicate and get on with the establishment that seems to matter. And sometimes how many people before you have hinted at the same stuff and been destroyed.

 For full details of the photo used above check this link to Wikipedia.

Coming up: why do we so often fight change just because it is change?

2 comments to Why do we so often reject the truth? (Ignaz Semmelweis – 2)

  • Variations on the story imply that Semmelweis, to make his point, intentionally infected himself with the contagion knowing that he would be doomed.

    But, he did write about it. My opinion — the main stumbling block to introduction of aseptic methods was that standard medical concepts were to primitive for practical comprehension of the concepts to occur.

  • John B

    This is astonishing. I have never heard this story until today. After reading the Wiki and this post, I find it so odd to know that someone who changed the world so much, died from possibly an asylum beating. He saved so many lives through his discovery, yet because he had an inability to communicate properly provide an attractive behavior, many rejected him.

    What lessons can we learn from someone like this who now has a House memorial and a Medical University named after him? He still died of a beating in a crazy house, committed by a “friend” who took his job after his death, and up to his death was considered an “adulturing, alcoholic.” What will we do differently?

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