Trigger Warning: Mention of restraint, psychiatric units and ridicule.
Ignaz Semmelweis was born in 1818. He was an assistant at an obstetric clinic in Vienna. He dedicated his time and efforts to figuring out the cause of puerperal fever (childbed fever).
His chief gave up hope and assumed that the disease was unpreventable, so he did not want Ignaz Semmelweis to investigate it.
Ignaz Semmelweis posed the idea that puerperal fever may be passed on from the medical students to the patients they examined. He told the students to wash their hands in chlorinated lime before examining patients, to see if it prevents the infection from passing on.
Using Semmelweis's method, infection rates reduced dramatically and many lives were saved. Younger physicians realized that this was an important discovery, but his boss was cynical and didn't support his discovery.
Semmelweis also reduced infection rates in other hospitals by using his method. His method was accepted by those in Hungary, however those in Vienna were critical and condescending towards him and his discovery.
The media slandered him and wrote that it was time to stop the nonsense about chlorine hand wash. Semmelweis sent publications on his discovery to prominent physicians, however the majority reacted negatively and believed that his method was ridiculous.
In 1856 Semmelweis was told to visit a psychiatric unit, there he was restrained and put into a straight jacket. During the time Semmelweis was alive, experts and authorities attacked and ridiculed him for his discovery
Now, Semmelweis's antiseptic ideas are accepted by the medical profession and it is now seen as common sense that disinfecting / washing your hands helps prevent infection. Semmelweis was the founder of this practice in medicine. The idea of washing hands to prevent an infectious disease is so simple. yet they believed the disease was not preventable!
This type of ridicule still happens today, we are still in the dark ages of medicine in many ways. There is so much more to learn. If no one ever challenged or questioned medical practices, then people would still be getting treated with blood letting, lobotomy, and recommended cigarettes by doctors.
What can we learn from the story of Semmelweis?
1.When people pose new medical and scientific ideas, they are often ridiculed as their idea goes against the status quo. The people who get ridiculed today for their medical and scientific ideas and findings may be the key to scientific evolution. This is why we need to be open-minded and never automatically assume that someone's idea is "nonsense" or "quackery" just because it is different, as some of the major practices used today were once thought of like this.
2. Viewing a disease as "unpreventable" may make some doctors lose motivation to find a prevention method. They may just read "unpreventable" or "incurable" in a medical textbook and never go beyond that belief, rather than looking for answers. There are likely many diseases today that are seen as incurable or unpreventable that we will one day realize are not.
3. The media can be biased and can slander some very valid medical and scientific theories just because they are currently seen as "unconventional", but one day they may be seen as common knowledge.
During Semmelweis's time, it was believed my many people that the cause of infectious disease was miasma (bad smells). This is why Semmelweis's theory was ridiculed.
This sort of ridicule towards new ideas still exists in modern days. When Dr Susan Swedo discovered PANDAS, she was met with high levels of opposition, people thinking it was ridiculous that tics and OCD could be triggered by a Strep infection. Now, PANDAS is accepted to exist by the International OCD Foundation, Harvard, Stanford and the World Health Organization. Sadly, there are still many doctors who refuse to believe in the existence of the condition because they were not taught about it in medical school and don't believe anything that they didn't learn there. However PANDAS criteria was only set out in 1998, and some doctors are only learning about the existence of the condition now.
There are also many other ideas which some people may think are ridiculous, such as when people talk about how food sensitivities can be a trigger for psychiatric symptoms. However there are now many studies showing increased rates of food sensitivities in people diagnosed with certain mental illnesses such as Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia. Studies have also shown people who experience remission or reduction of their psychiatric symptoms from the elimination of their food sensitivities. For example, the area of gluten sensitivity and Schizophrenia has many studies like this.
Just because an idea or discovery may seem bizarre from our current lens of viewing certain conditions and symptoms, doesn't necessarily mean that it is wrong. Science is constantly evolving, what we once believed to be true in the past may no longer be seen as true. Science involves change and questioning, so trust the science, not the bias. True scientific discoveries are made with an open mind.
1. Zoltán, Imre. “Ignaz Semmelweis | Biography & Facts.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Ignaz-Semmelweis.
2. Trueman. “Ignaz Semmelweis.” History Learning Site, History Learning Site, 17 Mar. 2015, www.historylearningsite.co.uk/a-history-of-medicine/ignaz-semmelweis/.
3. Genuis, S.J. and Lobo, R.A. (2014). Gluten Sensitivity Presenting as a Neuropsychiatric Disorder. Gastroenterology Research and Practice, 2014, pp.1–6.
4. Lionetti, Elena, et al. “Gluten Psychosis: Confirmation of a New Clinical Entity.” Nutrients, vol. 7, no. 7, 8 July 2015, pp. 5532–5539, 10.3390/nu7075235.