Sunday, September 27, 2009

Being Right When Nobody Will Listen

Modern history is strewn with the carcasses of women who died for their cause.

This is not their story.

This is the story of a man whose life was also laid down to advance the lot of women. His name was Ignaz Semmelweis, and his name should be better known than it is, because women out there, everywhere, owe him big time.

Incidentally, "strewn with carcasses" is a good way to start this story, because Semmelweis was a doctor in a time when medicine wasn't too advanced. In the 1830s, a time before antisepsis, anaesthetics, germ-theory, or any of today's medical trimmings and trappings, Ignaz made his way from his native Hungary to study medicine in Vienna. By 1846, he was the head of Vienna's General Obstetric Hospital, where, incidentally, maternal deaths averaged at about 10% of admissions. They all seemed to display the same symptoms; a high fever, abdominal swelling, and skin pustules. Semmelweis wrote that he was perplexed by the death rate - even women delivering in the streets were dying less often than women in the clinic. But by 1847, he had discovered something brilliant - and unprecedented.

A colleague of old Ignaz had cut his hand whilst conducting an autopsy, and within a few days died with the same presenting symptoms as the mothers in the clinic. So Ignaz Semmelweis concluded that "cadaverous particles" carried on the hands might actually be causing the deaths. He instituted a policy which was to see him hounded out of the medical profession: compulsory hand-washing in a chlorine solution.

Within a few months of his policy's implementation, two things had occurred in a noticeable fashion. Firstly, women were dying at radically lower rates - the death rate had dropped from 10% to less than 2%. Secondly, Ignaz's popularity and credibility had plummeted. Many doctors considered the idea that they carried disease-causing particles on their hands to be both nonsensical and the highest form of insult. Semmelweis was dismissed from his post at the hospital in 1848 on the spurious accusation of political activism, and openly ridiculed by the medical profession to the point where he returned to Budapest.

As his credibility wore through, so did his sanity. Semmelweis began writing angry letters to anyone who would read them, and eventually published in 1961 a book of "Open Letters" lambasting the entire medical profession as well as many famous individuals. In the last decades of his life, he became a man obsessed. All conversations were turned to childbed fever. He began stopping unknown couples in the street and tearfully begging them to ensure, should they ever have children, that the doctor washed his hands. He began drinking heavily and visiting prostitutes. Some believed that his brain may have been succumbing to syphilis.

Eventually, in 1865, he was sold out. A colleague persuaded his wife to allow Semmelweis to be committed to a mental institution, where he was subjected to beatings, placed in a straitjacket, and administered laxatives and enemas in the customary style of the day. A slight wound sustained in a beating from the guards turned gangrenous, and in an ironic twist which would be glorious were it not so terrible, Semmelweis died from precisely the disease he had spent his lifetime attempting to beat; septicaemia.

Had he only lived a little longer, Semmelweis would have seem himself vindicated by history. With the work of Pasteur and Lister, germ-theory became accepted and the sensible policy of handwashing made compulsory practice. Semmelweis' name now graces a university, a museum, and several medical facilities, whilst his visage has graced European coins and postage stamps. In Hungary he is known as "the saviour of mothers". Oddly enough, the psychological catchphrase "the Semmelweis Reflex" is sometimes used to denote the kind of knee-jerk reaction people take to things that fall outside their accepted frame of reference.

I guess the take home lesson here is that it's hard to be right when nobody will listen. Ignaz Semmelweis was by no means the first person to find that out (just ask Socrates), but his story is particularly ironic and painful because he wasn't actually asking that much. The man lost his life and his sanity because people didn't want to wash their hands.

So, like I said, we owe him big time.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bad For All Involved

Some relationships just aren't meant to be. Others are really not meant to be, in a way that can be so explosive that it's just bad for everyone involved... and the occasional innocent bystander. CB is loving countdowns at the moment, so, for your time-wasting pleasure, here are some of the most damaging relationships of all time. It's sure to make you feel better about your current partner, or your single status.

10. William S. Burroughs and Joan Vollmer
The Background: Vollmer met Burroughs, an up-and-coming writer and drug dealer, in 1944, left her husband for him, and became addicted to benzedrine.
Collateral Damage: In 1951, Burroughs famously shot Vollmer in the head whilst drunkenly re-enacting William Tell. He fled to Morocco to write tortured novels including Naked Lunch.

9. Romeo and Juliet
The Background: This story apparently dates back to antiquity, so I thought I'd include it for mythological value. It might be the quintessential example of when it's better to just not go there.
Collateral Damage: Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris die painful deaths.

8. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill
The Background: The famous poet Sylvia battled depression for much of her life, and it seems that Ted didn't help... anybody.
Collateral Damage: Ted's affair with Assia destroyed his relationship with Sylvia, who put her head in the oven in 1963. In the following years, as Assia's mental health broke down under the stress of her social ostracism following Sylvia's death, Ted began dalliances with much younger women. In 1969, Assia murdered her daughter and committed suicide by the same method as Sylvia had used.

7. O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson
The Background: O.J. was a famous football player and comedic actor, who beat the crap out of his wife Nicole for a number of years. When she left him, she ended up dead, but he managed to dodge a conviction thanks to some very convenient jury filtering.
Collateral Damage: Nicole's life, Johnny Cochrane's reputation, the Naked Gun trilogy, and everybody's faith in the US justice system.

6. Heloise and Abelard
The Background: When Abelard was appointed as a tutor to the young scholar Heloise in the 12th century, they soon began a passionate sexual affair, were secretly married, and had a child. Fear of retaliation from her family caused Abelard to place Heloise in a convent for protection.
Collateral Damage: The family did retaliate, castrating Abelard, who retreated to a monastery to spend the rest of his life as a scholar and hermit. Heloise unfortunately suffered the same fate, but an increasingly tortuous series of letters between the two former lovers more than hints at her loneliness, sexual frustration, and grief. For his part, he writes that he was only in it for the sex.

5. Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo
The Background: These two charming individuals met in 1987 and married in 1989, just as he began a spree which lead him to be known as the Scarborough Rapist. Karla always encouraged his sadistic sexual fantasies, but later on, she starting assisting him in fulfilling them.
Collateral Damage: The pair raped, mutilated and murdered at least four girls between 1991 and 1993, including Karla's 15 year old sister Tammy, whose virginity was a "Christmas present" to Paul from Karla. Paul Bernardo remains in prison and is unlikely to be released, however, a clever plea-bargain resulted in Karla's being released in 2005.

4. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
The Background: Both from poor backgrounds in the midst of the Depression, these two progressed up the crime food-chain from petty thugs to full-blown bank-robbing, cop-killing fugitives.
Collateral Damage: Nine police, four civilians, and Bonnie and Clyde themselves ate lead.

3. Oedipus and Jocasta
The Background: In a spectacularly self-fulfilling prophecy, Oedipus is foretold to kill his father and marry his mother.
Collateral Damage: The city of Thebes is ravaged by a plague of infertility as nature backlashes against the royal match. Oedipus eventually discovers the truth about his ancestry after having four children with his mother. She hangs herself in shame, he gouges his eyes out and wanders in blindness until death. Complications of this incestuous legacy result in the deaths of three of Oedipus' children.

2. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
The Background: Henry needed an heir, and of six children born to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, only one daughter had survived - Princess Mary. In order to get around the Catholic Church's disapproval of divorce, Henry created his own Church of England.
Collateral Damage: Anne was charged with incest, witchcraft, adultery and treason after bearing a female child instead of the promised heir. She was convicted and beheaded in 1536. Henry's defection to the Church of England resulted in the Marian Persecutions, enacted by Henry's eventual heir Mary I. She attempted to revert the population to Catholicism by force, burning over 300 Protestants at the stake between 1555 and 1558.

1. Helen and Paris of Troy
The Background: Helen's father was Zeus, who raped her mother Leda in the form of a giant swan. "The face that launched a thousand ships", Helen was married off to the brutish King Menelaus of Sparta, but ran off on a whim with Prince Paris of Troy.
Collateral Damage: The seige and sack of Troy, thousands of Greek and Trojan deaths, several dreadful TV miniseries, and the complete loss of Brad Pitt's credibility.

<-- Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo on their wedding day.
Who else should never have gotten together?