Ignaz Semmelweiss

Ignaz Semmelweiss
  • Mocked by the medical community for his advocacy of hand washing
  • Institutionalized after a nervous breakdown
  • Beaten by asylum guards and died 2 weeks later

The career of Ignaz Semmelweiss is one of the most tragic stories in science. It’s one thing when a researcher is ignored during their own lifetime (or afterward). It’s regrettable, but understandable, when striking new findings are doubted by scientific authorities. But the case of Semmelweiss is an instance of a demonstrably life-saving innovation being rejected, mocked, and its discoverer tormented until his untimely death.

Specifically: Semmelweiss found that having obstetricians wash their hands prior to delivering children led to a nearly 90% decrease in maternal mortality. Hand-washing, a practice that seems so obvious in modern medical practice, was so uncommon as to seem absurd to doctors practicing in 1861, when Semmelweiss published a book about his findings.

The tone of the times clearly indicated that he was a crazed fringe theorist, an opinion that his institutionalization only seemed to confirm. But we know who was right—in the end, not only did he leave us with improved hygienic standards and decreased mortality—his story gives us the “Semmelweiss effect,” a name for the phenomenon of rejecting evidence that contradicts established beliefs.

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