A surgeon scrubs his hands and arms before going into the operating room at Riverside County Regional Medical Center.

Wash your hands

Ignaz Semmelweis,

A short extract from my book:

In Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s there were two maternity wards, Clinic 1 and Clinic 2, which admitted women on alternating days. The first clinic was attended by medical students, the second clinic by midwives. Pregnant women admitted on Clinic 1 days begged to be admitted to Clinic 2, as it seemed to be common knowledge that Clinic 1 was cursed. Data collected from 1842 to 1846 were incontrovertible: maternal death rates were 60% lower in the midwives’ clinic. A junior doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, was tasked with investigating this. He found no differences in the clinics themselves, nor the delivery procedures. He made the suggestion, unusual for the time, that the medical students wash their hands with strongly chlorinated water. When they did, death rates dropped to levels found in Clinic 2. The medical students had come often from dissecting cadavers in anatomy classes. They didn’t wash their hands because, well, why would they? There was no reason. This was decades before the germ theory of disease was proved by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

Semmelweis presented his findings to his superiors. He could not explain why the washing of hands helped, so they did not adopt his suggestions. Shortly afterwards he was fired and he returned to his native Hungary. Hospitals where he worked showed similar improvements, but his new colleagues would not adopt his methods either. He spent 20 years in increasingly angry correspondence with the European medical establishment. He was largely ignored. He died in an insane asylum in 1865, a broken and defeated man. In psychology, the Semmelweis Reflex is a cognitive bias where we reject new evidence when it contradicts existing beliefs or established paradigms.

The Laughing Baby p.25-6

The Laughing Baby is published on 16 April 2020. You can purchase it from Unbound or via Amazon.

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