Silencing the Lone Voice

His was the lone voice crying out in the wilderness.

And no one was listening.

Listening ?

It was not simply that people were NOT listening;
they were becoming increasingly irritated at his rambling pronouncements
and ‘doomsday’ speculation.

But to this one man, his concern was of Incredible significance:
– despite the fact that no one wanted to know.

The year was 1847 and, in the teaching hospital of Aligemeine Krankenhaus, Vienna,
women who delivered babies were dying.

Or rather, women whose babies were delivered by physicians
and their assisting medical students … were dying

of what was termed “Childbed Fever”.

Women, in the other ward – by contrast,
who were delivered by the hospital’s midwives,

went home following successful births.

Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis was not only bothered by the phenomenon,
he was determined to stop it – and took it upon himself
to discover and make known the reason for the appalling rate of mortality.

Semmelweis was agonising over possible causes when his colleague,
professor Jacob Kolletschka, cut his finger on a scalpel blade
whilst conducting the post mortem of a woman who had died in labour.

Kolletschka died.

What was incomprehensible, though, was that his body
revealed the Same Symptoms … as the woman who had died giving birth.

How, Semmelweis wondered, is it possible for … a MAN
to die from a disease restricted to … WOMEN in labour?

Upon considering the matter, Semmelweis was absolutely certain
that he knew the answer:

The transfer of disease from a physician’s hands

– following autopsy,

to the bodies of women in the wards.

Women delivered by midwives, survived.
Women delivered by doctors bore a good chance of dying.

Physicians conducted post mortems.
Midwives did not.

Physicians and their medical students moved freely
from scrutinising a corpse, to examining a labouring woman.

They HAD to be, he reasoned, carrying infection … on their hands.

Semmelweis began to insist that his colleagues wash their hands
with chloride of lime BEFORE tending women in labour.

Whilst the idea of sepsis was, of course, unknown to Semmelweis,
he was certain that it was NOT washing hands, that led the deaths of women.

Using the mandatory washing of hands and instruments in Chloride of Lime,
the mortality rate in the physician’s ward dropped from 18% to 1%.

But to physicians who worked with Semmelweis,
– the very idea that … THEY … could cause death was
outrageous and insulting.

THEY … Were Doctors !

His 2 year appointment to the hospital was not renewed
and Semmelweis was obliged to leave the hospital in Vienna,
and return to Hungary where, in 1851, he took up a new position
heading obstetrics at St Rochus hospital.

The death rates of women plummeted.

But still, his new colleagues were becoming more and more irritated
at Semmelweis’ insistence that THEY were causing death
by not washing their hands.

Never one to display great patience for apathetic, vanity-saturated,
wilful imbeciles … Semmelweis began to write ( much to the heightened irritation
of those for whose self-importance, arrogance, and laziness,
Semmelweis’ assertions were a threat. )

In 1861, Semmelweis completed a text on the Aetiology of Childbed Fever,
which conveyed his insistence ( along with his all-too evident frustration
against care-free doctors ) that the death of women
was being caused by lack of proper washing.

Physicians were unrelenting in their contempt of Semmelweis’ warning of danger,
and continued in their filthy habits – infecting women with whom they came into contact.

On a holiday arranged by his wife, Semmelweis was grabbed by several men
and dragged inside a hospital
that his wife had told him she wanted to see.

The hospital was a lunatic asylum

and Semmelweis realised – far too late – that his wife had betrayed him,
and had conspired with Semmelweis’ own doctor
to have her husband ‘committed’.

Imprisoned in a lunatic asylum – the only sane physician
amongst a medical community full of them –
Semmelweis would die in the same madhouse from
… an infected cut.

A physician who insisted upon hygiene

was declared ‘crazy’ for being clean;

and died at the age of 47, in an asylum,

from a wound infected due to lack of hygiene

– the Very Thing about which
he had been trying to warn the world.

Betrayed by his wife;
despised by self-important medical doctors,

Semmelweis would not live to see his name
utterly exonerated by the work of Joseph Lister.

As a boy reading history, I would always try to find
a moral from which I could learn something of substance,
from the life of someone else.

I persistently maintain, in this Internet site, that
to follow whatever is popular and pleasing
to the majority of modern humanity – is to guarantee
certain degradation of mind and morals,

I cannot but wonder if – in this presentation of Semmelweis –
I may be the only one capable of seeing the Moral
in the appalling tragedy of Semmelweis … the Moral that,

‘The Majority’ … are Wrong.

And that, there are times when individuals who are declared
by the masses … to be ‘crazy’, ‘narrow-minded’, or ‘alarmist’,

are the only sensible and intelligent voices amidst multitudes
who are either anaesthetised with vanity,

or just too lazy to care.

P Livingstone

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