Friday, 3 January 2014

Men of Yore: Ignaz Semmelweiss

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865), also Ignác Semmelweis (born Semmelweis Ignác Fülöp), was a Hungarian physician called the “saviour of mothers” who discovered, by 1847, that the incidence of puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever could be drastically cut by use of hand washing standards in obstetrical clinics.
While employed as assistant to the professor of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria in 1847, Semmelweis introduced hand washing with chlorinated lime solutions for interns who had performed autopsies. This immediately reduced the incidence of fatal puerperal fever from about 10 percent (range 5–30 percent) to about 1–2 percent. At the time, diseases were attributed to many different and unrelated causes. Each case was considered unique, just like a human person is unique.
Semmelweis’ hypothesis, that there was only one cause, that all that mattered was cleanliness, was extreme at the time, and was largely ignored, rejected or ridiculed. He was dismissed from the hospital and harassed by the medical community in Vienna, which eventually forced him to move to Budapest.
Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind and he was in 1865 committed to an asylum (mental institution). Semmelweis died there only 14 days later, possibly after being severely beaten by guards. 
Semmelweis’ practice only earned widespread acceptance years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease which offered a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’ findings. Semmelweis is considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures. 

The case of Ignaz Semmelweiss demonstrates a couple of things about 'experts': that they are not infallible; that they will attack anyone who doubts their theories, going so far as to label them insane if needs be; they consider their theories more important than the people they are supposed to (and claim to be) looking after.  Modern day experts are no different to those of 150 years ago, or of any era.  If someone has a PhD, M.D., Dr, Prof, Priest, Imman, Lord, King, President or some other letters or title around their name then that's no reason to consider them infallible.  It's also worth considering that those letters or title were given to them by a group, a culture, that has a particular set of values that might not be in accord with your own values.


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