Semmelweiss and Science: A lesson

One thing about fighting pseudo science, in Medicine in particular – is that one does encounter nuts.

There is no proof that germs cause disease.

Microorganisms exist, but are like worms, just found in regions of the body that are diseased.

Even more hilarious:

Where is the bloody proof?

It is all an international conspiracy.

Many of these guys desperately want to argue and discuss their “belief system” with experts. Experts don’t want to do it- most of the time. Who wants to re-invent the wheel just for the entertainment of morons?

The key thing is perspective. Our Science education focuses on mostly on facts. That is a pity. We should also learn how facts came about.

It was the mid eighteenth century in Hungary. A young doctor joined the Vienna General Hospital’s Obstetrics and Gynaecology wing as Chief Resident. His name was Ignaz Semmelweis. There were two maternity Units in the hospital, each admitting on alternate days. Poor pregnant mothers from across the country flocked to this hospital to give birth.

At that time, a lot of mothers suffered, after delivery, from a mysterious illness called ‘puerperal fever’. It was very dangerous, and killed off a lot of women afflicted. It was caused by ‘bad air’, ‘mysterious humors’ and many similar vague things, according to the physicians of the time.

Semmelweis, reviewed the records kept in the hospital. The maternal mortality was quite high- about 7 percent. But he noticed a curious fact. Unit one had a mortality rate of 10 percent, and unit 2 had only about 4. This was repeated every month and year. It was a notable difference. There was a notable difference in the administration of the units also.

Unit 1 was run by doctors and medical students. Unit 2 was managed by midwives. Was the difference due to the ineptitude of the so-called highly trained doctors when compared to the lowly midwives?

There was another even more puzzling fact. Some mothers gave birth on the streets, on the way. Then they were brought in for after care. They had the least incidence of puerperal fever. The streets were safer than the most modern hospital at that time!

Semmelweis personally observed and recorded the working of each unit. He could find no difference. The skill, care, instruments- everything was scrutinized by him. He could identify nothing. His colleagues were least interested in these matters.

That time it was common practice for doctors to do and attend autopsies and anatomical studies on dead bodies, and then go straight to the labour rooms to conduct deliveries. It was only when one of Semmelweis’ friends died, that he got a clue. He got an accidental injury by a scalpel while doing an autopsy. The finger became swollen, and he developed symptoms identical to puerperal fever and he died.

Semmelweis proposed that some unknown ‘cadavorous particles’ was being transmitted to the patients in the labour room through the contaminated hands of the doctors. He suggested that all doctors and midwives wash their hands in a solution of soda lime before entering the room.

The maternal mortality rate plunged by 90 percent. It even came zero for many months- for the first time since the beginning of the institution. Semmelweis was dead right.

He did observation, careful recording of data, formulated a hypothesis and tested it- Bingo- SCIENCE.

But what is more important to note is another aspect of Science that is not properly recognized:

Public dissemination of data and conclusions to anyone interested.


So that they can challenge the data. Challenge the conclusions.

-But only after careful study and effort. Science demands the same diligence from the challengers.

In fact, Semmelweiss became an ardent proponent of hand washing, but failed to convince most for almost half a century. He became a sort of madman and died in a lunatic asylum.

But the thing with truths is that they cannot be buried for eternity-

Provided, the processes of Science are not shackled.

The significance of the discovery was recognised widely only after the efforts of Lois Pasteur in France who discovered that microorganisms cause many diseases. He could observe micro organisms under the microscope, thanks to the efforts of Robert Koch and Antony Von Leeuwenhoek.

Joseph Lister in Glasgow was a surgeon who introduced antiseptic techniques into surgery. He had heard of Pasteur’s work. For the first time in history, cavity surgeries like appendectomy became tolerably safe.

Slowly a truth was taking shape. Actually, there is enough history to write a book. Jenner. Vaccination. Penicillin.

The battle against our ancient enemies, the pathogenic microorganisms, was beginning to be won.

Science is a collaborative effort that spans generations of interested people. That is why some accuse the entire system of conspiracy. But we have to realize that it works, due to DISSENT. Individual scientists are careful, because of intelligent and educated DISSENT from their own ranks.

Intelligent and Educated– these words are crucial.

Sanctity of beliefs is not important in science. Everything natural is good. Processed chemicals are bad. Natural delivery is always better than a ceasarian. We can think positively and that is enough to kill cancer. We do not need to learn- as we know everything.

There can be no sacredness to these statements.

Veritas Curat- The truth shall set you free.

The truth is also damn difficult. Just a forward on Whatsaapp need not be it.

Dr Jimmy

I am a Doctor, Writer and Science Communicator. I am a member of Info- Clinic, and have written a few books. This site features my blog posts and stories. Thank you for visiting. ഞാൻ എഴുതാൻ ഇഷ്ടമുള്ള ഉള്ള ഒരു ഡോക്ടർ ആണ് . നിങ്ങളുടെ താത്പര്യത്തിന് നന്ദി .