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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post bitcho. Shame things like this happened all the time. In any profession with a culture and authority, forward thinking geniuses get punished for not fitting the mold. Aw