Accountability / Change / Courage / Decision Making / Innovation / Research / Service to Others

The Tragic Story Behind the Semmelweis Effect

Science and medicine are often entwined in politics and ego, but the most dramatic example was the life of Ignaz Semmelweis, an Austrian physician in the 1840s.  His simple observation and analysis saved hundreds of children — but prejudice and tradition overshadowed his discovery and countless thousands died.

Semmelweis was an obstetrician who observed that infant mortality — known in the 19th Century as “childbed fever” — was linked to a lack of doctors washing their hands between deliveries.  As absurd and incredible as this seems today, handwashing was not a protocol in hospitals and clinics.

Germ theory of disease had not yet been discovered and science doubted the unseen could be a cause of death. Semmelweis deduced an unknown “cadaverous material” caused childbed fever. The doctor established a policy of using a solution of chlorinated lime (modern calcium hypochlorite, the compound used in today’s common household chlorine bleach solution) for washing hands between autopsy and the patient exams.

The results were dramatic. The number of childbed fever cases dropped significantly when doctors washed their hands thoroughly.  Statistics kept over a prolonged period of months clearly provided the outcome was conclusive.

The issue was that the medical leadership throughout Austria and Germany rejected Semmelweis’ speculation that there was unseen agents (germs) carried from cadaver or ill patient to an uninfected patient.  Semmelweis did not win over his colleagues and the masters of medicine — to the contrary, he proved annoying and he angered the elder statesmen of science.  Even with the statistical evidence, they ignored, denied and challenged his beliefs.

Semmelweis, enraged by the indifference of the medical profession, started penning  angry — and very public — letters to prominent doctors and scientists. He accused them of irresponsibility and denounced them as murderers. His fellow Austrian doctors, and his wife, thought he was going mad and in 1865 he was committed to an insane asylum.   Ironically, he was severely beaten upon being admitted to the asylum and he died of septic infection within a few weeks of his arrival.

What is the Semmelweis Effect?  It is metaphor for a certain type of human behavior characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs or paradigms — named after Semmelweis, whose perfectly reasonable hand-washing suggestions were ridiculed and rejected by his contemporaries.

I sometime think many executives who refuse to consider social media as a critical and essential 21st Century communications channel are suffering from the Semmelweis Effect.

What do you think?


(Considerable resourcing from Wikipedia was used in the preparation of this post.)