The Ignaz Semmelweis reflex

From the 1600s through the mid-1800s, 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 after performing autopsies.

As you can guess, this caused a plethora of problems. One problem being Childbed Fever.

Childbed Fever was a rampant epidemic throughout Europe and America during this time. Causing death rates for women giving birth as high as 25% 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. This leads him down a path where he would eventually 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 doctors didn’t resonate with them. It didn’t align with their worldview. They were looking at the same data but interpreted it completely 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 responsible for transmitting this infection.

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

Would it have hurt to try washing your hands?

No doubt the Semmelweis reflex began with a few outspoken proponents of washing their hands and the rest simply followed. Millions of lives could have been spared if only the medical community could stop and listen.

The doctors, in this case, were wrong.

Sometimes there is a cost to 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.

Tell a better story. Share it in a way that it will resonate with others and you will begin to see the change you seek to make.

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