The Parable of Ignac Semmelweiss

When I was a kid, my dad told me the parable of the first physician to realize maybe mothers would not suffer quite so many horrifying deaths if doctors washed their hands between autopsies and childbirth. Unfortunately this doctor was an asshole, so everyone ignored him. He eventually went crazy from the stress of knowing so many women were being killed by their doctors, and died in a mental hospital. And that is why we don’t dismiss ideas just because they come from crazy assholes, no matter how much we want to.

I really like this story, and tell it to myself sometimes when I want to dismiss someone for being crazy and/or an asshole. Recently I got curious how true it actually was, so I pulled a couple of books on the topic, of which I finished one, The Doctor’s Plague by Sherwin B. Nuland.

First: the story as told by my dad is way more accurate than a story half remembered 25 years later has any right to be. The doctor in question is Ignac Semmelweis. Like most such discoverers, Semmelweis’s genius was not an entirely unique idea, other people had noticed autopsies and childbed fever seemed to go together, but he was the one to invent handwashing. He got a little more support than my dad mentioned, but managed to alienate them by, as I was told, being an asshole. He refused to write up his results because he had already proven them to his satisfaction. He wrote angry letters attacking the most prominent doctors in Europe. He did not play well with the other children. And he did indeed die in a mental hospital. The only thing my dad got wrong was the cause of the insanity: it was probably Alzheimer’s, not frustrated genius.

But there was another part of the story I knew but hadn’t considered; the autopsies that were contaminating doctors were being done in pursuit of curing childbed fever. The infection was spread by examinations meant to teach students. The very things doctors were doing to cure women were hurting them. Over the medium term, everyone would have been better of if they’d stopped trying. I find this terrifying.


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