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Handy To Know

A Hungarian doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis used his analytical acumen to champion the way forward with the observation that there was a need for doctors to instill the habit of washing their hands. It was the promotion of this discovery that would eventually change the worlds medical standard on the importance of hygiene and would also lead to him questioning the integrity of his fellow medical practitioners and eventually cause his demise.

In the late 1800’s Dr. Semmelweis was on the precipice of his discovery as he began a quest to try and unravel the mystery of the high rate of pregnant woman and their new born children succumbing to a feverish infection that caused inevitable death for so many. Through analyzing the fatality rate between different delivering methods he noted that mid wive’s experienced a higher success rate than that of medical practitioners. Eventually, after a series of his hypothesis proven inaccurate he noted the significant difference between the two methods were that it was common practice for doctors to do autopsies post mortem. It wasn’t until a close colleague who was a pathologist died of the same infliction, that it dawned on him that there was a possible misconception that the issue was isolated to pregnancy and infants. It began to be clear to Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis that there was a high probability that the doctors who executed the autopsies were then carrying the contaminant on them as they went straight back into the delivery room to deliver the next child. In essence, his conclusion was that the doctor’s themselves were the primary carrier, hence increasing the chances of continual exposure of spreading the disease.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  ‘Marcel Proust’

The sad reality of this discovery didn’t initially get embraced. The looming ego of medical practitioners drove them to fight against the discovery with veracious resistance. The acceptance would equate to the admission of the harsh reality that many lives were needlessly lost as a result of tardy hygiene practices. Although Dr. Semmelweis continued to voice his opinion and provide evidence that the reduction of death directly correlated with his theory that instances of death were dramatically reduced when the people washed their hands and cleaned the instruments between procedures, he lost his job and was in a position, whereby he became slowly consumed by his outrage of his peers ignorance.

In 1865, Semmelweis lured under false pretense to a mental asylum where he was committed, restrained in a straight jacket and beaten by the guards before being locked in solitary confinement.  Fourteen days later he died from blood poisoning that was caused by a gangrenous wound that was suggested to have stemmed from the beating. He  was 47. It wouldn’t be until post the discovery of germ theory that the concept of improving hygiene would be embraced, and the medical standards changed forever.

Every step toward change seems to be a battle that has to fight to rise above the human ego before it can be embraced and sustained. History continues to demonstrate that we are our own worst enemy. Instead of supporting advocates for change, we try to have them silenced. Dr. Semmelweis provided an eloquent solution to aid in the reduction of a horrendous problem. Instead of being hailed a hero he was discredited, lost his job and was persecuted for suggesting that washing our hands could help to address the issue. ‘Educated’ medical practitioners consciously chose to resist his findings at the cost of thousands of lives, all because he couldn’t provide a scientifically proven reason why this worked. Their egos held more value then the opportunity to increase the chances of survival of vulnerable expecting mothers and their new born infants. It is a shameful blight on medical history.

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