How Humility Helped One Man Save Millions of Mothers

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Reading time: 5 minutes

Let me tell you a story. It’s one about wits, humility, and the rise against authority. It also features the deadliest plague you’ve never heard of. And, best of all, it’s a true story from which we can all learn something. So grab your top hats and strap your corsets, ‘cause we’re going back in time. 

The year is 1847. Human labor is being replaced by steam engines, people can communicate at a distance through Morse code, and all the dapper gents are riding velocipedes. It’s a time of industrial progress and scientific discovery. Sadly, it’s also a time of untimely death.

For the past 200 years, a plague has been sweeping across Europe and America. Despite all the scientific progress of the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, there’s still no cure. The scholars call it childbed fever. The normal folk knows it as “doctor’s plague”. And everyone knows it’s deadly.

On average, 1 out of 4 women dies after childbirth. This is the norm. During an outbreak, death tolls can even rise to 100% of the women giving birth. And it’s an unpleasant death. After one or two days, the women start having fever, chills, and abdominal pain. After a few more days, they have a rotten smell. The mothers can sense it, and so can everyone around them. That’s when they know the end is near.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels

But there must be a cure! And people are desperate to find it. They try everything, from old-wives concoctions meant to drive away the death-bringing stench, to desperate prayers and religious ceremonies. But the main hope lies somewhere else — in a rapidly advancing science called medicine. 

Medical scholars are heavily invested in this. For more than 200 years, childbed fever has been escaping them. Once the mother has contacted it, all the doctors can do is watch their young patient die. Over and over, each time the same, each time a tragedy. 

Medical students and residents are furiously dissecting the cadavers of the victims, spending long hours discussing the cases with their professors, struggling to find a cure. But there’s no hope in sight. Until now.

In 1846, a young medical doctor from Hungary joins this desperate fight. As you can imagine, this wasn’t his dream job. After getting his degree, Ignaz Semmelweis spend 2 years trying to get a position in internal medicine. And failed miserably. So when he got an offer from the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, he decided to give it a shot. 

And what a shot that was…

The Foolish Young Doctor

After one year on the job, Semmelweis began to understand just how bleak the situation really was. He was working in one of the best clinics in the whole country and still, 20% of their patients died after giving birth. Childbed fever was doing the rounds through their wards and there was nothing the doctors could do to stop it. 

It made me so miserable that life seemed worthless.

But while his colleagues were searching for a cure, Semmelweis refused to do so. Instead, he started looking for a way to prevent the disease. That’s when he remarked something odd. A few blocks away from his clinic there was another place where women could give birth. A small place run by midwives. And the death rate in this clinic was 10 times lower! This was known by everyone, but nobody had a good explanation for it. So Semmelweis decided to do something unheard of: he went to talk to the midwives. 

This may sound funny to you now, reading it in 2019. But in 1847 it was outrageous. Medical doctors were seen as this highly educated and highly respected breed of people. And most of them were. After spending thousands of days and nights reading treaties and dissecting cadavers, they had earned their right to be respected. Unfortunately, they had also forgotten their right to be wrong. 

So when Semmelweis told them what he’d been up to, he was ridiculed. How could a doctor even think of asking a midwife for advice? What was he thinking? But he persisted. He kept visiting the midwives, asking them about their method of delivering babies. He stepped down from his erudite throne and wanted to learn from these less educated women. 

And what he found would revolutionize the world of medicine forever. 

Sacrifice to the Gods of Medicine

In the spring of that year, while he was still searching for the cause of doctor’s plague, a good friend of his died. Killed in the line of duty, Jakob Kolletschka was working on the same problem as Semmelweis. And while performing an autopsy on the latest victim of this plague, he was accidentally poked with a scalpel by one of his students. A few days later Kolletschka was lying on the autopsy table.

Autopsy at the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, where the first epidemic of childbed fever occurred in 1646.

Semmelweis went to examine the body and saw something odd. The body of his colleague showed signs of childbed fever. But how could this be? He had obviously never given birth to a child.

That’s when the lightbulb went off.

The sudden fever, the high death rate, the uneducated midwives ⏤ it all fell into place! He could finally see it. Now he just needed to make everyone else see it.

In their rush to find a cure for the disease, the doctors couldn’t see that they were the ones causing it. The medical scholars were methodically dissecting the cold, infected bodies in the morning, and during the afternoon they would assist other women in delivering their newborns. Washing hands or changing clothes between these seemingly unrelated tasks was not customary. Why would they bother? Nobody had even heard of germs or bacteria back then.

Neither had the midwives. But they weren’t allowed to perform autopsies ⏤ they didn’t have the necessary training or education. All they did was deliver babies. And kill a lot fewer women in the process.

After connecting the dots, Semmelweis immediately introduced the washing of hands with an antiseptic between autopsy work and the examination of patients. The result? Death rates dropped by 90%. Thanks to his insights, countless lives were saved and continue to be saved to this day.

This could be the perfect ending. Sadly, it wasn’t.

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

When Ignorance and Old Ways Triumph

Semmelweis was decades ahead of his time. His theory of unseen little creatures that could transmit deadly diseases was seen as ridiculous. Despite lowering the death rate of childbirth, he became the laughing stock of the medical community. The year after he lost his job in the obstetrics clinic and in 1865 he was admitted in a mental asylum. Two weeks later he died of an infected wound.

But his principles live on. This is why you haven’t heard of childbed fever before reading this post. Hopefully, you won’t hear of it ever again.

Before you go, I want to underline 3 more things we can learn from the story of Ignaz Semmelweis (besides washing our hands):

  1. Innovative ideas are always ridiculed. Don’t be put off by this. People tend to laugh at things they don’t understand. Gandhi said it best: “First they ignore youthen they laugh at youthen they fight youthen you win.”
  2. Don’t be afraid to stand up against authority. Semmelweis was in his 3rd year of being a doctor when he made his discovery. All the old hats laughed at his ideas. And they were all wrong. Dead wrong.
  3. Never be too proud to learn. It took me years to fully internalize this lesson, but it has served me extremely well. No matter whom you meet, no matter what his background or her education may be, there’s always something you can learn from that person. And it’s your job to find out what. That’s why I end all my emails with the words “keep learning, keep growing”.

In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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