The Doctor Who Revolutionized Hand Washing But Died a Lonely Death

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We all have lots of ideas.  Some of them turn out to be great, others remain mediocre while many of them do not see the light of the day.  They remain inside of us and gradually die a slow excruciating death.  A lot of times, however we don’t even realize of its demise until we observe or at times experience the utility of that same idea being put to use by someone else leaving us with a sense of dejection and surrender.

I continue to relish the ‘pleasure’ of going through such experience innumerable times but one day decided to note down every idea that stuck my mind and check the box in front of it, when I see it being implemented by someone.  I have just begun this activity and in the past 3 days, have checked the boxes twice.  One of them was related to education of adolescents and the other one to farming (marketing).

However, I also get a sense of vicarious accomplishment as I see something born inside of my mind being put to life by someone else.  The world begins to feel strangely connected as our mind develops an ability to perceive such experience from this new perspective.


The Doctor

Today, however, I will be discussing about a doctor who had a remarkable idea probably much ahead of his time and unfortunately it contributed to his death as well.

He worked at the General hospital in Vienna in the mid-19th century and was trying to explore the reasons for an unusually high number of deaths due to puerperal fever also commonly known as childbed fever.

He narrowed down his study to two maternity wards, one taken care of by male doctors and the other one by female midwives. When he looked at the mortality data, he found out that the number of deaths in the ward handled by male doctors was five times higher than the one managed by midwives.

Possible Postulations

Once he was able to discern this information, he began working on finding out reasons for this anomaly.  He conducted a lot of tests and collected data to find out the exact reasons for such a high number of deaths in one ward compared to the another.

Some of his findings included women giving birth on the sides in the midwives ward and a priest who would walk by as the attendant ring the bell and he theorized the ringing bell or giving birth on the sides could be the clue and that the ringing bell might be frightening the women who recently gave birth.

Both these theories though turned out to be false without any conclusive proof to attribute any conclusion to them.



The Epiphany

The doctor became irritated seeing no conclusive evidence for any of his postulations.  He decided to take a break and when he returned was greeted with a shock news of one of his colleague’s death who conducted autopsy on a woman who died of childbed fever.

The doctor immediately realized the possibility of a connection between autopsies and women dying of childbed fever.  Since, most of these deaths were occurring in the ward manned by male doctors and medical students, who also used to conduct autopsies, while such a number was abysmally low for the ward managed by midwives as they were not involved in conducting post-mortems, he thought of diving deeper to find out why.

He assumed that when doctors or these medical students used to conduct autopsies, there were these small little pieces of corpse flesh that would remain stuck in their hands.  This would then infect the women when these doctors would deliver babies and infect them with the disease.

If this hypothesis was correct, instances of childbed fever should come down if the doctors begin to clean their hands before the delivery and after conducting the autopsies.  So, he ordered the entire staff of doctors and medical students to clean their hands with soap and chlorine which would disinfect them after the autopsy and before they help in the delivery.

As the rule got implemented, the mortality rate came down drastically.



However, one thing he did was publicly admonish the doctors for their conduct who then went up against him.  The ensuing conflict led to loss of his job.

He tried convincing doctors elsewhere also, to wash hands to reduce chances of infections, however not many people paid heed, except for some doctors in Germany who also experimented with washing hands frequently.  Experiencing ridicule and being scorned by his own community, the doctor developed serious mental issues and was sent to a mental asylum after severe bout of depression and psychological disorder.  The doctor was not even acknowledged for his contribution even after his death which just got passing mention in some of the medical journals of the time.

However, now everyone is understanding the criticality of washing and disinfecting one’s hands, especially in medical establishments where the chances of spreading infections is much higher.


The name of this Doctor was Ignaz Semmelweis.


In fact, Semmelweis reflex a metaphor for human behavior to reject any new information which is not in sync with existing beliefs is named after him.


‘Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come’, said Victor Hugo, Semmelweis idea was probably way ahead of his times.

However, one thing we should all keep in mind is the importance of buying others opinion to our idea rather than enjoying the self-conviction as otherwise it may not yield the result we desire, just as the idea of hand washing was sabotaged by others and had to take a 100 years to become relevant again.

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