Slow Ideas

I re-blogged the post below, entitled “It’s A Slow Idea,” because it reminded me of the fateful tale of Dr. Ignacz Semmelweiss, a 19th century Viennese OB/GYN. Semmelweiss had a really great slow idea, one that would radically challenge the medical status quo of the time.

Semmelweiss made a logical scientific observation about the rampant incidence of childbed fever, which killed many women and their newborn infants in the maternity ward of the hospital he worked at. Only women whose babies were delivered by medical students, whose hands and lab coats were soiled from cadaver dissection, contracted childbed fever. Those women whose babies were delivered by midwives, who never had any contact with cadavers, rarely if ever contracted this lethal infection. Semmelweiss concluded that the infection must be transmitted somehow by “cadaverous particles” that the medical students bestowed upon mothers in labor and their infants. When Semmelweiss shared his hypothesis with his colleagues, he met consistently with vehement rejection. Fortunately, he persisted in his beliefs.

When he became the Director of the birth clinic, Semmelweiss insisted that medical students change their lab coats and wash their hands vigorously, and that all bedding be boiled after every patient leaves. The nursing staff was so incensed at Semmelweiss’ dictatorial manner and his “ridiculous” ideas that they made every attempt to undermine him. Through strict enforcement of his demands, Semmelweiss literally brought the childbed fever mortality rate from almost 100% of deliveries assisted by medical students to ZERO. Yet, when he presented his results at a conference to his colleagues, they laughed him out of the room.

Semmelweis was very hurt by this crass, but sadly predictable behavior. Henceforth, his professional and personal life deteriorated rapidly. As with most “slow” ideas that challenge the status quo, particularly when they threaten the egos and/or income of “experts,” it usually takes a full generation for their truth to be put into practice. Twenty years after his death, Louis Pasteur’s germ theory was celebrated around the civilized world, and Semmelweiss was posthumously acknowledged for his contribution.

“The human mind treats a new idea the same way the body treats a strange protein: It rejects it.” – Immunologist P.B. Medawar (Via Christie Nicholson)

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident” – Arthur Schopenhauer

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

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