In the context of increasing polarized opinions about medicine, expertise, and what those things mean, I thought I’d share one of the rather amazing stories of a hero of modern medicine. Ignaz Semmelweis, MD, practiced as a gynecological surgeon in Vienna in the mid 19th Century. He’s now referred to as “the savior of mothers.”
But what about how he gained this honorific?
He is one of the early practitioners who designed a prospective study design where he measured results directly, something rare in his day. Ignas observed that on some units the mortality rates for new mothers of “puerperal” infections reached 30%. Some versions of history noted that nurse midwife units had lower mortality rates due to handwashing. Other versions of history noted that the worst mortality rates were on units where medical students came directly from cadaver labs without washing their hands. Other descriptions noted that the prestige of the individual surgeon of the that day related to how dirty his surgical gown was. The ethos of the surgeons had not included handwashing because no one could “see” germs.
Whichever version is more accurate, Ignaz had a realization that perhaps washing hands between births and exams might reduce infection rates. He developed a simple solution for handwashing that ended up being anti-bacterial, and showed that by washing hands and wearing clean surgical gowns, the infections could be cut by half.
What an amazing finding! No antibiotics back then, so this saved a lot of mothers’ lives.
How did the medical establishment respond to his data?
Interestingly, in certain areas of Europe, doctors began to follow his practice. But in Vienna, local fellow professionals found his ideas laughable because no one could see the bacteria [we can’t see it so it isn’t real]. His own abrasive personality didn’t help in his acceptance either, because he accused his local colleagues of being “murderers” by failing to engage in handwashing.
Local physicians and his wife believed he was literally losing his mind to be so obsessed with this, and had him committed to a mental asylum in 1865, where he died 14 days later due to injuries from being beaten by guards when he tried to escape.
Only after Louis Pasteur later developed the germ theory of disease was there a theoretical understanding of how Semmelweis’ work could be “scientific” which then changed history’s impression of him to being a pioneer of handwashing in medicine.
Today, the foundation of handwashing remains not only the key to reducing infections after surgery, but also the foundation to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses in the community.
So much could be said about this historical set of events. We tend to think these areas of blindness to data must be centuries old; but, alas the same phases of data blindness persist into the current day. It’s not limited to medicine, either, as the challenges of physics moving from a Newtonian worldview to an Einsteinian worldview, but that’s a different story.
So the local surgeons literally could not “see” the data he presented any more than they could even “imagine” germs they couldn’t see. We might hope that some of those folks would at least examine the data “objectively.” Just suspend disbelief. But when the professional community believes in a particular version of “reality” it is quite easy to completely dismiss contrary data. This remains a challenge of peer reviewed journals today, because the “peers” all perceive innovation or newness as a violation of the status quo, which they believe they have to defend [because it is all they can “see”].
Some new ideas will be found to be false and drop away, but just data and study will allow that to happen. Other new ideas could be truly paradigm changing once accepted. How many innovations that could save misery or save lives have been lost to the tyranny of the “status quo?” We can never know because they were ignored or actively suppressed. Whatever became of the electric car from the 1970s?
Keeping more openness to new and contradictory ideas at least long enough for reasonable consideration is a key to opening a new, larger, more whole and powerful worldview. It’s easy to ridicule the doctors who rejected Ignza’s findings. But consider what new concepts or ways of thinking that we may have rejected outright as seemingly false that might be a next step of self discovery.
On an individual level we fall prey to the distortion related to “perception is projection.” What we see “out there” in a huge way is related to what our own filters “in there” allow us to actually see. Out of the nearly infinite stimuli out there, we select those things that match our own worldview, which prevents all of us from seeing data that doesn’t match. This prevents personal overwhelm, but it also stunts personal growth. How personally blinding to a larger reality is that! That is the individual dismissal Ignaz’s colleagues used to ignore him.
The stuck areas of life, whether fears over life events, noticing problems that just won’t change, observing serial relationship problems. . . . they need a larger worldview, new data, new ideas. What are you willing to try to see that you can’t yet see; hear what you can’t yet hear; feel what you can’t yet feel? Stepping a bit outside of personal comfort zones of perception?
Is there some data out there that doesn’t support ongoing fear? Do we choose to look at the fear based data for COVID-19 [or anything else] because it is matching our current worldview, or perhaps choose to seek more hopeful data to confront those fear based perceptions. It is out there! Choose what you choose to see carefully: it will begin to define what you’re able to see.