“crackpots” who were right 4: Ignaz Semmelweis

Like many people these days I have experienced the thrill of tracing my ancestors using some of the online resources and public archives available. In my case a large number of my ancestors that I can trace lived in Victorian London and in following their lines I am struck by the high mortality rates, especially among children and mothers in childbirth. It is particularly sad to learn that a significant number of those deaths could have been prevented if medical practitioners had paid attention to the work of  Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. That makes this entry in our series about “crackpots” who were right the most shocking case that I am aware of.

Medical knowledge in the early 19th century was very limited. The theory of diseases spread by germs was not understood until after the work of Louis Pasteur from 1864 and effective treatments for infections were not available until the discovery of the medicinal effects of penicillin much later. The leading theory of diseases was dyscrasia based on the ideas of an imbalance of the basic “four humours” and the usual treatment was bloodletting or extreme forms of hydrotherapy which often did more harm than good. It was thought that disease was spread by bad air until the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak when John Snow identified contaminated water as the source of the cotangent. Such advances dramatically improved the prevention of diseases, but an earlier discovery could have saved many more lives in London and other cities if it had been accepted more widely.

In 1847 Ignaz Semmelwies was a physician working at an obstetrical clinic of the Vienna General Hospital where his duties included inspections, teaching, supervision of difficult cases and record keeping. When he took on his responsibilities the clinic had a particularly bad record for maternal mortality due to puerperal fever which was causing the death of 10% of new mothers. A second clinic had a better rate of only 4% so women would beg to be admitted there instead. The situation was so bad that many would prefer to give birth at home with no medical supervision and indeed the survival rates were probably better under such circumstances. Naturally Semmelweis was not happy with this situation and he set about looking for the cause by carefully eliminating possibilities and keeping the best possible records of all cases. He soon found that the cause of the problem was related to cleanliness so he instructed the doctors and midwives to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solutions which were most effective at removing smells. The result was a dramatic ten fold decrease in mortality rates.

News of the breakthrough spread round Europe via lectures and reports delivered by students of Semmelwies. Given the clear evidence for the effectiveness of the washing procedure and its easy reproducibility you might expect that it would have been adopted quickly. But sadly there was considerable resistence and only a few hospitals in Germany followed the practice. As a result it can be estimated that some tens of thousands of mothers died needlessly following child birth.

In part the problem was that Semmelweis offered no explanation for why his procedure worked. It was a purely empirical observation that could not be explained until the theory of germs became current some twenty years later. At the time doctors believed that such deaths had numerous causes because autopsies seemed to show significant variations of the decease. Reactions to Semmelweis were very mixed. In England doctors thought that the fever was contagious and they mistakenly took the new result as simply a confirmation of this theory with nothing new to report. In part the fault lay with Semmelweis himself because he did not publish an explanation of his results himself and information passed secondhand via his students. Nevertheless it is clear that the failure to change hygiene practices was not just through misunderstanding. There was considerable resistence, not least because the egos of the top physicians of the time would not allow them to accept that their own uncleanliness could be a cause of disease. In 1956 Jozsef Fleisher, an assistant to Semmelweis reported supporting evidence from another clinic in the Viennese medical Weekly. The editor remarked sarcastically that it was time people stopped being misled about the theory of chlorine washings. Such reactions were not atypical. Semmelweis’s doctrine was finally rejected at a conference of german doctors which included the celebrated Rudolf Virchow who was considered a scientist of the highest authority at the time. It was the ultimate blow from which Semmelweis could not recover.

In 1861 Semmelwies’s apparently suffered a breakdown through depression. He would turn every conversation to the topic of childbed fever. By 1965 he was considered an embarrassment to his colleagues and was tricked into entering an asylum where he was held in a straightjacket against his will. His bad treatment there led to his death from gangrene that year and his work was conveniently forgotten. Some people speculate that he may have suffered from Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder or some other mental ailment we recognise today. But consider this. He knew that each day mothers were dying needlessly at the moment that should have been their families greatest joy. It was an unnecessary tragedy perpetuated by the arrogance of doctors and could be stopped if only people would listen to him. Through his work in his own clinic he would have seen first hand the hurt that this caused. He was unwilling to accept that, and they called it madness.

4 Responses to “crackpots” who were right 4: Ignaz Semmelweis

  1. Fernando Loup says:

    Quoting Phillip Gibbs
    —————————————–
    That makes this entry in our series about “crackpots” who were right the most shocking case that I am aware of.
    —————————————–
    quoting Phillip Gibbs again
    —————————————–
    In 1861 Semmelwies’s apparently suffered a breakdown through depression. He would turn every conversation to the topic of childbed fever. By 1965 he was considered an embarrassment to his colleagues and was tricked into entering an asylum where he was held in a straightjacket against his will
    ————
    Excellent Doctor Phillip Gibbs…arriving at viXra i arrived at the right place

    excellent your column on Crackpots that were right..keep up the good work

    and yes Ignaz Semmelweis was a dramatic case…but i would like to mention another one….in 1995 Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz discovered the first Extra Solar Planet: 51 Pegasi

    Later one Geoffrey Marcy and Paul Butler discovered the planets of the star 47 Ursae Majoris…this system of planets is perhaphs one of the best candidates to support life based on DNA and water ..our kind of life…

    but in 17 February 1600 the Italian astronomer Fillipo Giordanno Bruno was burned alive because he told that many of the stars are Suns with planets like Earth …something agains the “official scientific knowledge” of the Late XVI Century and begginning of the XVII Century…Giordanno Bruno was doomed by the Church

    now there are more than 300 Extra Solar Planets…and i am wondering when a planet will be christened with the name of the Italian astronomer Fillipo Giordanno Bruno

    Fillipo Giordanno Bruno as a dramatic case would certainly find his own way in the column “Crackpots that were right”

    Excellent Doctor Phillip Gibbs…continue the good work you are doing

  2. Phil Gibbs says:

    Fernando, thanks for the suggestion, its a good one. In fact there are handreds of similar cases I could cover in this series and they are probably the tip of a very large iceberg. I suspect that most scientists who are ahead of their time get completely forgotten and we wont know about them.

  3. I recomment reading (again?) Pierre Boulle’s wonderful novel ‘Planet of the apes’, probably one of my all favorite novel ever… An old one, but timeless anyway regarding what we are undergoing at present… This novel is clearly an analysis of hierarchy in the science world, and the domination of social order over scientific aims. In this novel, it is clear for the human reader that Taylor’s consciousness will appear as being obvious to ape scientists Zira and Cornelius, the two chimps who study him… But the official science, embodied by the orangutan cast, rejects the hypothesis because it goes against all known previous paradigms, from what they got their long-lasting prestige… The moral of the story is that there are two different ways in making science, which is either seek for the truth prior to all conceptions by building up knowledge, or use it so as to obtain a high status in society. Stubborness of those in the latter case is their weakness, which is to be used in order to make the truth emerge in the end anyway.

    From reading the novel lately again, I drew a certain energy, so I recommend reading it to any vixra submitter having trouble with the system at the time, as it should almost surely help them.

    Regards,

  4. Fernando Loup says:

    quoting Jerome Chauvet
    ——————————————————–
    there are two different ways in making science, which is either seek for the truth prior to all conceptions by building up knowledge, or use it so as to obtain a high status in society. Stubborness of those in the latter case is their weakness, which is to be used in order to make the truth emerge in the end anyway.
    ——————————————————–
    From reading the novel lately again, I drew a certain energy, so I recommend reading it to any vixra submitter having trouble with the system at the time, as it should almost surely help them.
    ——————————————————–

    yes Dear Jerome i read the book but i also remember the movie with Charlton Heston as Commander Taylor.I also have the most recent one with the time travel to the future…in the eletromagnetic storm near the space station

    to use science to obtain a status in the society unfortunately is the most common place…by favoring a set of theories while rejecting another ones,from Galileu and the Church to every one of the examples of the “Crackpots that were right”

    as for the energy obtained reading the book yes the book is a good example on how the official scientific knowledge..eg orangutangs can be wrong regarding Taylor intelligence

    but what still keeps me with the will and the energy to proceed my scientific research is viXra by itself…what viXra represents….at least one time by week i read the “Why viXra” and “viXra Disclaimer”

    yes i arrived at the right place

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 276 other followers

%d bloggers like this: