Ignaz Semmelweis

What is it with the explorer types and their extravagant names?

  • Ignaz Semmelweis
  • Tenzing Norgay
  • Amerigo Vespucci
  • James Cook

Ok – maybe Cooky was a bit of an anomaly, or exactly what the Aussies needed. “Keep it simple mate.”

The gift of Ignaz Semmelweis continues to be experienced today. In fact, with the latest pandemic, some would say it is now Ignaz’s time to shine.

During the mid 1800’s throughout parts of Europe, nearly 1 in 5 women who gave birth in hospital died.

The cause of their death was an infection known as childbed fever (Puerperal fever). At the time, all the medical wisdom led to a belief amongst the experts that disease was spread by Miasma, or in other words – dodgy smells in the air. There was simply, very little that could be done to help. So the experts said.

But what Ignaz discovered, that seems SO DARN OBVIOUS to us now, was the power of washing our hands.

Yep. That was it. He asked the midwives to wash their hands in a chlorinated lime solution and mortality rates dropped well below 1%.

Ignaz Semmelweis is now known as the father of modern antisepsis. Even if you are like me, with limited medical knowledge, you have probably already joined the dots to realise he created antiseptics. The very hand sanitiser that is part of preventing more widespread infections of COVID19.

But we learn something far more powerful from Ignaz. Beyond the practice of handwashing and its implication.

You see, this is where the story takes an unfortunate turn.

When he managed to prove the positive impact of hand washing on reducing mortality rates – no one believed him.

The Miasma theory had existed for so long and had been adopted by so many medical experts, that most of them refused to let go.

Despite the evidence. They clung tightly to their beliefs. Like monkeys.

monkey looking in the mirror

No, I’m not trying to demean the medical community of the 1800’s. They were a lot smarter than me. We can just learn a lot from monkeys.

In helping professions, the story of “The Monkey Trap” is often shared.

Those cheeky monkeys that wreak havoc are quick and clever. But the hunters in Africa had an insight. Instead of trying to compete with the speed and agility of a Monkey, they looked into their nature instead.

Like humans, the hunters realised monkeys really struggle to let things go.

They would catch them by putting a nut or small piece of fruit inside an object. Usually inside a hollow coconut or a jar. The trap would have a small hole in it, just wide enough for the monkey’s hand to slide in and grab the treasure!

Once the monkey grabbed the object of their desire, they would make a fist around the reward. Only to find that the size of the fist they had created could not slide back out of the smaller hole.

And here’s the key thing. The monkey refused to let go.

The key to their freedom was so obvious: Drop the bounty, slide your hand out and run monkey, run!

But the monkey would only grip the food more tightly, as the net was finally thrown over them.

The medical fraternity simply refused to let go of their grip on the prevailing wisdom of the time.

In a sad twist of irony, Ignaz Semmelweis died at age 47 from an infection in his hand. His very discovery would have prevented his death – if the medical community could have moved past the boundaries of their existing thinking.

Most people get their driver’s license at the age of 16.
We get our ego license much, much earlier.

I wish mine would expire. But alas, it still gets in the way.

The ego is an interesting creation of our personal minds. Usually, it is more harmful than helpful. It’s like wearing spectacles with deep scratches all over them. It’s only when we can look past our ‘self’ that we see clearly again.

The “Semmelweis reflex” is something that will resonate with anyone who has an ego. It is potentially, just as important to us today as the fine art of washing our hands.

It refers to our tendency as humans, to cling to our pre-existing beliefs and reject new ideas or fresh thinking that contradicts our current level of understanding. Even when there is adequate evidence.

The Semmelweis reflex is the monkey’s fist wrapped around a precious nut, that they will never get to enjoy, because they won’t let it go. They are clinging to something that enslaves them.

…that thinking, is literally nuts…

The next time you have a reflex to something different, pause and ask yourself:

“What might I need to let go of?”

And most importantly,

“What new discoveries await?”

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