Ignaz Semmelweis

“ANOTHER one?”, the Doctor asked. “What’s he accusing me of this time?”

“Being a murderer.”

“Bloody hell… just add it to the pile with the others would you?”.

Doctors dedicate their lives to helping people. They work under the most trying and stressful of circumstances. They shouldn’t have to deal with crazy letters from even crazier people, accusing them of murder.

Their job’s hard enough, right?

What type of person even does that?

You might be pleased to know that the man who wrote the libellous letter – the man who wrote MANY such letters – to both doctors AND politicians – was eventually deemed insane and placed into an asylum. His contemporaries, friends and even wife could no longer cope with his embarrassing behaviour, so had him committed, so he couldn’t hinder the medical community by spouting crazy theories. Unfortunately, in a sad end, he died in that asylum just 14 days later from a septic wound, possibly as a result of being beaten by guards.

That’s tragic, but at least the doctors did the right thing – they put him in a place where they thought he would be safe and looked after, allowing them to carry on saving lives, free from interruptive hate mail and idiotic ideas. 

Idiotic ideas like:

“If a doctor has just performed an autopsy, he should wash his hands before delivering a baby.”

Yep, that was his crazy idea.

——

In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor and scientist, had an idea. Semmelweis had just tragically lost his best friend after he was accidentally jabbed by a scalpel used in a post mortem.

It occurred to Semmelweiss that maybe, after touching dead bodies, “cadaverous” particles remained on doctors hands and instruments, which could then, if not removed, transfer over to living patients.

Semmelweis immediately started practising a revolutionary medical technique, utilising a formula of chlorinated lime between examinations of the dead and the living. 

He started washing his hands.

The result was astounding.

The mortality rate immediately dropped by 90%. 

90%! 

Immediately!

In fact, in two months the following year, his death rate was zero.

Ze-fucking-ro!

To put this in context, this was the 19th century – a century where smallpox, typhus, yellow fever and cholera were rife. 

A century that saw SIX global pandemics.

Semmelweis published his work and expected his ideas to be widely adopted. He had no reason not to – his work was saving lives – he had proof. 

Turns out it wasn’t so easy. Most scientists and doctors rejected Semmelweis’s idea as “too simple”. They called him “naive” and mocked him at his outrageous suggestion that they should wash their hands. It would appear that doctors and scientists didn’t like being told that they were murdering their patients.

Of course, Semmelweis probably didn’t help himself in all this by writing angry letters and being aggressive. Perhaps this story would have turned out differently if he’d have gone about this more tactfully. He also began to behave rather oddly towards the end of his life, with his biographer suggesting his behaviour was possibly a symptom of dementia.

Regardless, Semmelweis’s ideas were ignored and it would be 15 years before Louis Pasteur would publish his “germ theory” – the idea that germs can cause disease. 

Between Semmelweis and Pasteur, even Florence Nightingale tried to convince people about the effectiveness of handwashing for combating disease.

She had the same success as Semmelweis – not much.

Semmelweis had a brilliant, groundbreaking idea that would save thousands of lives. It was simple, easy to do and it worked! All people had to do was wash their damn hands!

…and yet he STILL couldn’t convince people to take notice.

It wasn’t until 1981 that the US Center for Disease Control published its first handwashing guidelines – 116 years after Ignaz Semmelweis’s death in an asylum.

Maybe your idea isn’t quite as radical as hand washing, but it still might be worth persisting with for a bit longer.