Tag: Semmelweis Reflex

Who was Ignaz Semmelweis?

Anti-vaccine folks don’t seem to like most medical doctors.

There are some that they simply love though.

No, I’m not talking about Andrew Wakefield

This is about Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis.

Never heard of him?

Who was Ignaz Semmelweis?

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor in the early to mid 19th century who discovered that hand washing with a chlorine solution before surgery and delivering babies could keep people from getting sick and dying, including the women who gave birth in Dr. Semmelweis’ maternity ward.

“Due to his new ideas and his passionate tone his views were rejected and attacked by the majority of Hungarian doctors and doctors from abroad as well.”

Semmelweis University on Ignác Semmelweis

Surprisingly, no one believed him.

Why not?

Although the germ theory of disease was first proposed in 1546 by the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro, in the early 19th century, most people still believed in the miasmatic theory of the Greek physician Galen of the early Roman Empire.

In 1847, most people didn’t even know about bacteria yet, even though Antonie van Leeuwenhoek had seen them in his microscopes and described them as early as 1676.

So if you believed that the miasma, or bad air, caused disease, what difference would it make if you washed your hands? And would you really believe Semmelweis and his new theory that medical students were carrying “cadaverous particles” on their hands from the autopsy room to the delivery room and making new mothers sick?

Doctors at the time didn’t think that childbed fever was contagious anyway.

What is childbed fever? It is a postpartum infection of the uterus or genital tract that is usually caused by streptococcal bacteria, and which can lead to sepsis.

“Semmelweis’s findings did not immediately improve sanitary conditions in hospitals, but surgeons gradually adopted aseptic and antiseptic techniques and became leading innovators of techniques to reduce patients’ susceptibility to postoperative infections.”

Richard E Dixon, MD  on Control of Health-Care-Associated Infections, 1961-2011

He should have been believed, as he was able to correlate lower death rates in the maternity wards with hand washing, but he likely wasn’t because he never proved causation.

“By nature I am averse to all polemics. This is proven by my having left numerous attacks unanswered. I believed that I could leave it to time to break a path for the truth.”

Ignaz Semmelweis in The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever

Another problem?

Semmelweis didn’t answer all of the attacks of his critics, including that a large number of women in his maternity wards died between 1856 and 1858, even though the doctors were washing their hands. The deaths were later traced to poorly laundered linen though, not the doctors, after the laundry service for the hospital had been “released to the minimum bidder.”

Semmelweis published his book The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever in 1860.
Semmelweis waited 13 years to publish his book, The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

It also didn’t help that he waited years to formally publish anything about his work. In fact, his treatise, The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever, wasn’t published until 1860, which amazingly, is 13 years after he made his discovery!

There was also a lot of political stuff going on in Hungary and the Austrian Empire at the time, including the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

So instead of doctors believing him, he was said to have been driven out of the medical profession, although he still taught medical students, and he eventually died in an insane asylum.

It was at about this time that Louis Pasteur was doing his experiments on germs, disease, and pasteurization. Also, Robert Koch and his Koch’s postulates would soon help doctors and scientists identify which germs were causing a specific disease. And it wasn’t long before Joseph Lister promoted the ideas of antiseptic surgery.

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”

Pierre Pachet

That’s not to say that everyone believed Pasteur, Koch, or Lister right away either.

The Semmelweis Reflex

Although most people didn’t believe him before he died, a paradigm shift soon came and Semmelweis became known as one of the early pioneers of antiseptic policies and procedures.

This reactionary short-sightedness gave rise to the the term The Semmelweis Reflex: “the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.”

Carl Hendrick on The Semmelweis Reflex

The Semmelweis Reflex.

There’s your explanation for why anti-vax folks like to invoke Ignaz Semmelweis.

They think that since the ideas of Semmelweis were rejected, but ultimately proven to be right, then every crank and quack who thinks that vaccines don’t work, that vaccines are full of toxins, or that vaccines cause autism must be right too.

And since most are also anti-vaccine, all of the people who believe in autism bio-med cures must be right too.

“Today’s vaccine injury denialism is a modern-day Semmelweis reflex. Pediatricians who care passionately about the welfare of children understandably find repulsive the idea that autism is largely iatrogenic.”

Louise Kuo Habakus and Mary Holland in Vaccine Epidemic

They are all Semmelweis!

Of course they aren’t.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis had data and statistics showing that he was right. On the other hand, we have data and statistics showing that the anti-vax heroes, including those who push autism biomed cures, these Semmelweis wannabes, are wrong.

“This rhetorical sleight-of-hand, which is sometimes referred to as the Semmelweis Strategem, is a variation of the Galileo Gambit, whereby someone whose work is debunked argues that the fact that Galileo’s work was also debunked proves he is actually correct. Semmelweis is frequently invoked by anti-vaccinationists.”

Seth Mookin in The Panic Virus

Want to know the real irony in their invoking Semmelweis?

Many anti-vaccine folks don’t even believe in germ theory!

That’s right, germ theory denialism is a thing, with advocates discounting the work of Joseph Lister, Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, and Ignaz Semmelweis.

What To Know About Ignaz Semmelweis

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was ahead of his time in the mid-19th Century when he tried to get doctors to wash their hands to avoid getting their patients sick.

More About Ignaz Semmelweis