The Ignaz Semmelweis reflex

From the 1600’s through the mid 1800’s, knowledge of antiseptics and germs were virtually unknown. That’s why it was common practice to deliver babies without washing your hands in between procedures. In fact, many doctors didn’t even change their clothes.

As you can guess, this caused a plethora of problems. One problem being Childbed Fever. Now Childbed Fever was a rampant epidemic throughout Europe and America during this time. Causing death rates for women giving birth as high as 25% (and even a handful times 100%) in certain hospital wards.

Ignaz Semmelweis, later known as the “savior of mothers”, started to notice something. That women who birthed at home were far less likely to contract Childbed Fever. It turns out Semmelweis was able to discover that the simple act of washing your hands after delivering a baby could reduce the rate of infection to less than 1%.

This remarkable discovery has no doubt saved millions of lives.

The problem though is that the medical community rejected Semmelweis’s findings. It took doctors 20 years to adopt the practice of washing their hands. Costing the lives of millions of people in the process. All because the medical community was unwilling to change.

The story that Ignaz Semmelweis told the medical community didn’t resonate with them. It didn’t align with the other doctor’s world view. They were looking at the same data but completely interpreted it differently. Because they couldn’t believe that invisible cadaverous particles could cause death to another human being. They didn’t want to believe that they were the ones transmitting this infection.

The Semmelweis story is a reminder about the dangers of ignoring the science and the data to fit our world view. We all do it. As human beings, we interpret data to fit our world view. And we reject any notion that doesn’t fit. In these moments we need to ask ourselves: what is the worst that can happen?

No doubt the Semmelweis reflex began with a few outspoken proponents of washing their hands and the rest simply followed. But millions of lives could have been spared if only the medical community could stop and listen. If someone wasn’t afraid to stand up and join Semmelweis.

The doctors were wrong. Sometimes there is a cost for being wrong. And the cost of being wrong was only amplified when they couldn’t accept the fact they were wrong. Which is why it’s essential to learn how to tell a better story. If Semmelweis could have told a better story maybe the medical community would have listened.

Share your story in a way that resonates with others and you will begin to see the change you are looking to seek in the world.

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