Was a time when surgeons would get someone to hold open the pages of a book and do their first-ever eye op, squinting at the pages through their monocle. And they’d get someone else to hold open the lids of the eye!
Often none of these assistants, and often not the surgeon, would wash their hands. What for?
In 1847, a young Hungarian obstetrician noticed the dramatically high maternal mortality following births assisted by doctors and medical students. However, those attended by midwives were relatively safe. Investigating further, he realized that these physicians had often come directly from autopsies. He decided that something was contagious, and that matter from autopsies was implicated. So he made doctors wash their hands with chlorinated lime water before examining pregnant women. He then documented a sudden reduction in the mortality rate in the next year from 18% to 2%.
So they thanked him, right? Never! Semmelweiss and his theories were rejected by most of the contemporary medical establishment. How dare a 29yr-old come up with new evidence when all the eminent old surgeons already KNEW everything!?
Fourteen years later, in 1861, he wrote about his theory and was ridiculed. Eminence triumphed over evidence. What caused those deaths was not cadaverous infection, for goodness sake! It was ‘conception and pregnancy, uremia, pressure exerted on adjacent organs by the shrinking uterus, emotional traumata, mistakes in diet, chilling, and atmospheric epidemic influences.’ Anything BUT what this unpopular man and his evidence suggested! We do NOT have to wash our hands, understand?
Semmelweis got depressed, started drinking and acting weirdly and was eventually tricked into visiting a mental institution where he was held captive. He tried to leave and was severely beaten by several guards, secured in a straitjacket, confined to a darkened cell, doused with cold water and administered laxatives. He died after two weeks, on August 13, 1865, aged 47.
We’re a whole lot luckier 144 years later!
But we still have to keep a wide-awake wary eye out for the ever-present danger of ’eminence over evidence!’
134yrs later it happened again. The so-called Semmelweis reflex—a metaphor for a certain type of human behaviour characterized by reflex-like rejection, ridicule, and rejection by contemporaries of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs, or paradigms—is named after Semmelweis. In 1981, in his third year of internal medicine training, Barry Marshal in Perth, Aussie realised bacteria caused ulcers. Well, he was ridiculed. Eminence over evidence again. Us important, established old bullets who haven’t done the research just KNOW you’re wrong. You’re 29yrs old, keep quiet! You’re threatening a $3bn industry! It took till 1993 before he was believed. At least this time, Barry Marshal eventually got recognised while he was still alive: Twenty four years later he got the Nobel Prize!
Yes, we could talk about germ theory denial and hand-washing avoidance in 2020 too . . .