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 – 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 !

With his second year appointment to the hospital
not being renewed, 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.

Where the death rates of women subsequently plummeted.

But now, 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
to whose self-importance, arrogance, and laziness,
his assertions were a threat. )

In 1861, Semmelweis completed a monograph
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 by doctors.

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 have maintained throughout this site that
to follow whatever is popular and pleasing
to the majority of modern humanity,

is to guarantee certain degradation
of mind, and morals, and conscience.

The reaction of people has demonstrated
that my warning is perceived to be
little more than monotonous, ‘boring’
narrow-minded fanaticism.

I cannot but wonder if
– with these thoughts about Semmelweis –
I may be the only one capable of seeing the moral
in the appalling tragedy of this man:

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