When Doctors Considered Hand Washing A Baseless Conspiracy Theory

175 years ago, when the practices of western science were just starting to catch on, one rebel doctor proposed the novel idea of hand washing to his colleagues as a means of preventing infection from spreading throughout his hospital, in-turn making himself the most ridiculed pariah of his day. In this case, the infection that was spreading around was called Childbed Fever, and it was killing women in droves all over Europe. Mortality rates for new mothers in 1846 were horrific. In some areas the death rate was as high as 30%. Pregnant women would be healthy until the moment of delivery, then suddenly become ill with a worrying number of them dying directly thereafter. Nobody at the time felt the need to investigate this death streak until one “crackpot” obstetrician sought to prevent these unnecessary deaths through the unorthodox strategy of hand washing. He succeeded brilliantly in his efforts, lowering the death rate to nearly zero, only to be hated by the entire medical establishment as a result.

When Ignaz Semmelweis became the chief obstetrician in charge of two maternity clinics at the Vienna General Hospital, he couldn’t believe how many women had dropped dead immediately after childbirth. Unknown to him at the time, Vienna General would serve as the perfect test site for corroborating his hypothesis of infection control.

The primary clinic was a medical school where women were treated by experienced doctors and resident medical students. The second clinic, right next door to the first, offered free medical care to poor women who would often serve as midwives in return for the clinic’s charity.

Vienna General Hospital, 1793, Schaffer

Interestingly, Semmelweis immediately noticed there were considerably more deaths in the ward staffed by doctors and medical students than in the ward staffed by midwives. The lethal culprit was known to the doctors as as Childbed Fever or Puerperal Fever.

Childbed Fever burned through the primary clinic like an un-contained forest fire, but was mysteriously nonexistent in the charity clinic. But how could it be that women in the clinic staffed by experienced doctors and trained medical students died at a rate nearly five times higher than women in the midwives’ clinic?

After rumors began to inevitably reach the general public regarding these horrific mortality rates, women admitted to the primary clinic often begged their doctors for a transfer to the midwife clinic.

Though established medical consensus didn’t seem to think much of it at the time, Semmelweis felt strongly that childbirth should not be killing as many mothers as it was, given that the mortality rate at adjacent maternity ward was only 2%, or 1 in every 50. It wasn’t just hurting the reputation of the hospital, it was killing people who shouldn’t be dying if the doctors were doing their jobs properly.

After all, first, do no harm.

So why did the doctors’ clinic suffer a much higher death rate than the midwife clinic?

Confusingly, the charity clinic was far more crowded than the primary clinic, yet suffered fewer deaths from infection. Both clinics stood right next to each other, yet the infection wasn’t spreading into the charity clinic next door.

The only real difference he could find between the two clinics involved childbirth posture, i.e. women in the charity clinic gave birth on their side while women in the doctor’s hospital gave birth on their back. Semmelweis introduced the charity clinic’s procedure into the primary hospital, along with several other changes, to limit as many known variables as possible. Unfortunately, all of these initial measures had zero effect. Women were still dying in troubling numbers in the primary ward. All of the obvious alterations yielded inconclusive results, necessitating an even more thorough investigation.

Digging a bit deeper, Semmelweis observed how doctors in the primary clinic began their daily schedule in the morgue. They performed autopsies on corpses of women who had died the previous day and prepared those bodies for burial. Then they would move on to treating other patients with infections or diseases before finally arriving at the maternity ward to deliver babies. Semmelweis noticed how dirty their hands were following the morning morgue routine, and was appalled by the staff’s indifference toward filth generally. These doctors’ hands were so disgusting following autopsy that a fowl odor followed them around for the rest of the day, and they never washed their hands before examining other patients. Orthodox medical opinion at the time simply didn’t call for it.

But Semmelweis recognized what seems to us today a relatively obvious pattern, and began to notice how infection spreads patient to patient through physical contact. It seemed evident that the doctors must be carrying something around on their hands from handling dead bodies, and the cross contamination of that filth seemed to spell certain doom for healthy mothers.

But germ theory had not yet caught on in the medical community, so there was no established vocabulary upon which to lay down such outlandish claims. On top of that, the standard procedure at the time for treating Childbed Fever involved bleeding the patient, dramatically accelerating the decline of patients who were barely holding on. Women rarely survived the bleeding, but the doctors kept doing it anyway.

Semmelweis developed and implemented a strict policy of hand washing with disinfectant before every patient contact. He called a meeting to make the entire medical staff aware of his potentially life-saving hypothesis. He appealed to a sense of hygiene as well, urging doctors to simply wash their hands after working in the morgue and to to be more mindful of cleanliness in principle.

They all said he was crazy, but lo and behold, a miracle: the death rate of mothers in obstetrics plummeted to such a statistically significant degree that it constituted a revolution in science. After implementing these procedures the death rate dropped from one in 6, to one in 50. The proof was there for all to see. “Crazy” Dr. Semmelweis turned out to be 100% correct. The simple practice of washing hands and equipment between patients significantly reduced the hospital death rate to practically zero, and did so literally overnight. The cure was discovered. All you have to do is wash your hands.

But the medical fraternity was much less enthusiastic about this discovery. Some doctors felt deeply offended by the suggestion that their life-saving hands could possibly transmit fatal diseases. Semmelweis’ observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time, creating political friction within the institution. The other doctors became irritated with the unintended political consequences that this revolution in science created because it had the effect of removing the spotlight from them, and even vilified them.

Who did this tourist from Budapest think he was to embarrass the entire profession like this?

Semmelweis had crossed a line, and even though it was a line that needed crossing thus saving countless lives as a result, he paid for it dearly nonetheless. His perfectly reasonable suggestions were rejected and ridiculed by his contemporaries who considered antiseptic procedures unnecessarily extreme measures. When they pressed him for an acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, his hands-on evidence could never satisfy their unrelenting skepticism. The direct evidence was too anomalous for the medical bureaucracy, which required peer reviewed and authority approved white papers to be convinced that these drastic changes were indeed necesssary.

The evidence didn’t matter because what Semmelweis was proposing simply couldn’t be true. Tiny, invisible microorganisms were perceived as merely the delusions of crazy conspiracy theory types who will believe anything they hear. And appeals to ethics didn’t work either. Adherence to their Hippocratic oaths didn’t feel to them as though it could apply in this case. Ultimately, his contemporaries refused to believe him on the basis that they simply didn’t like him. He lacked tact and was often curt with others. He had violated laws, not of medicine, but of power.

The institution’s arrogance bewildered him. He couldn’t understand how professional healers could care less about their patients than they did their reputations and careers. An anger began to boil inside him, which only alienated him further. He became so enraged at the medical establishment’s failure to even consider a simple hand washing trial to save lives that he wrote venomous letters to medical journals accusing the doctors of murder, further isolating himself from his peers. In desperation he began passing out handbills in the street telling women to demand that their doctors wash their hands.

Semmelweis’ 1862 Open Letter to All Professors of Obstetrics

Semmelweis was able to finally provide proof of the connection between the morgue and the maternity rooms, albeit at a large cost. His friend and colleague Dr. Jakob Kolletschka was leading a medical student through autopsy procedures when the student accidentally punctured Jakob’s finger with a scalpel. Kolletschka subsequently came down with all of the hallmark symptoms of Childbed Fever before dying of septicemia a few days later. The connection was undeniable, and had cost the medical fraternity one of their own. The evidence seemed overwhelming in Ignaz’s favor.

But it didn’t matter. Ignaz had become a thorn in the profession’s side. He was fired and dismissed from the hospital for political reasons.

After making some very influential enemies, he lost his job and spent years as an unemployed activist trying to spread the wisdom about the effectiveness of hand washing and hygiene throughout the medical system. His advice was largely disregarded by medical authorities and Semmelweis began to deteriorate mentally, possibly from a disease like syphilis or Alzheimer’s, or possibly just from the strain of fighting for years to change a non-cooperative system. In any event, the other doctors returned to doing as they had always done, ignoring the temporarily adopted hand washing protocols between the morgue and obstetrics. And surprise, surprise, the number of mothers dying during childbirth again began to climb. But that didn’t matter to the other doctors and nurses. Dr. Semmelweis had embarrassed them, and filled them with jealousy, which turned out to be far more influential than the evidence right in front of their faces that he was absolutely right. What was true simply didn’t matter.

In 1865, nearly 20 years after his breakthrough, he was committed to an insane asylum in Vienna. He died two weeks later from a gangrenous wound on his right hand from a struggle with guards. Death caused by septicemia; sepsis; blood poisoning. The very disease he had spent his career trying to prevent. A disease typically caused by inadequate sanitation during medical procedures; is this perhaps the very definition of irony, or simply as George Carlin would call it, an “oddly poetic coincidence”?

As Thomas Kuhn has shown in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an exact measurement of the extent of stupidity among the learned is provided by the fact that every scientific revolution seems to take a generation. This one-generation time-lag seems to be caused by the fact that elderly scientists hardly ever accept a new model, however good it is, and the revolution is only fully accomplished when a second generation, with less prejudice, examines both the new and old models objectively and determines that the new is more useful.

Hagbard Celine, The Abolition Of Stupidity

The affair feels reminiscent of the film Idiocracy, wherein our protagonist Joe explains to the Presidential cabinet of the future that their food crops are all failing because they’re watering them with a sports drink instead of water. The societal assumption of the day has institutionalized the idea that plants “crave” electrolytes, and over time minerals began to gradually build up in the soil until nothing would grow, resulting in a great dust bowl. Joe recognized the connection between the sports drink and the dust bowl, but couldn’t get anybody else to even entertain the idea. After all, everybody knows that the sports drink has “what plants crave.” But even though he was explicitly appointed to his position of fixing the dust bowl on the basis of being the smartest guy in the world, the idea of watering crops with only water just seemed a bridge too far. “Water?” They asked. “Like out of the toilet?” Since nobody had ever seen plants grow out of toilets, Joe’s ideas seemed absurd and offensive. So “after several hours, Joe finally gave up on logic and reason, and simply told the cabinet that he could talk to plants and that they wanted water.

The doctors of 175 years ago weren’t that different from the doctors of Idiocracy’s tomorrow. Most of them smugly assumed they knew what they were doing and expressed the same irrational hostility to new ideas as Semmelweis’ colleagues. The doctors and scientists of the nineteenth century dismissed hand washing as a practice because the invisible boogieman presented seemed ridiculous. Semmelweis’ reformations were interpreted not as necessary advancements in the field of medicine, but as unhinged attacks upon the prestige of the medical profession. This resentment toward innovation constitutes the very definition of an anti-scientific attitude, yet accurately describes the behavior of many scientific professionals.

Rupert Sheldrake exposed the materialist religion of Scientism as an ideology of ignorance that deliberately ignores important evidence to the benefit of multinational agendas and to the detriment of everyone else. Scientism is a belief system faithfully practiced through the lens of “I don’t believe in God, I believe in Science.”

Sheldrake elaborates:

The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out but, in principle, the fundamental questions are settled.

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology…

For more than two hundred years, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity and nature is purposeless. Believers are sustained by the faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made.”

~Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion (7, 9)

How far from its original intentions has science deviated that it ceases to practice the scientific method, instead opting to cherry-pick data and proclaim consensus on political bases?

We tend to fancy ourselves as enlightened, free of all of the stupidity of the past. Contemporary minds comfortably ridicule the idiots of yesteryear who simply lacked the enlightenment we enjoy today. The mindset of Scientism tends to reject novel observations, but many of us are unable to see the blatant politicization of science, at all points of history, through a media smokescreen that portrays our institutions as infallible organizations run by incorruptible heroes.

But the truth is that the arrogance of Western Scientism has always existed as an ever-present tax on the free thought of medical professionals. In the 1940’s and 50’s everybody knew that Camel brand cigarettes were recommended by the medical profession, because the advertising of the day proclaimed that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Few questioned the consensus because it seemed inconceivable that the hallowed medical establishment might ever steer us wrong.

And we never seem to learn. Pharmaceutical companies convinced doctors throughout the 1980’s to prescribe methamphetamine for weight-loss, and still, few questioned the consensus.

Throughout the 20th Century, western popular culture hailed the scientific advancements of Monsanto as modern day miracles. And no matter how many people were injured or killed by PCBs, DDT, Roundup, et cetera, contemporary orthodox Scientific opinion consistently legitimized the industry while all third party studies were roundly dismissed by corporate medical journals as “junk science.” Publications that revealed this fact became labeled “fake news” outlets. The journalists and whistleblowers who stepped forward were labelled unhinged conspiracy theorists. Industry-funded studies will always claim that their products are safe because they need to make a profit. And if you want to feel good about using that product, industry cronies have co-opted our regulatory agencies and given themselves stamps of approval. This is how major corporations easily control the dissemination of scientific data to obfuscate obvious truths; with a confusing web of lawyerly lies.

The truth is that human beings as a species have almost always been wrong about almost every single thing that we ever thought was right, for the entirety of recorded human history. Wrong! Wrong! Oops! Fail! Missed again! Get ya next time! Wrong! Earth is flat! Burning witches! Slavery! Reefer madness! They thought Liberace was straight and Bruce Jenner was a man! Wrong! That should be inspiring. Occasionally here and again someone’s right about something, and they have a genius idea, and they’re right. And maybe you have a genius idea. So don’t be afraid to put it out there. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, because that’s what we do.”

~Doug Stanhope

The very idea that there could be an established medical consensus to begin with seems a fickle proposition. Learning has nothing to do with consensus because learning isn’t about agreement. Neither is the scientific method. Universal consensus would be inherently antithetical to the process of science itself, since any claim made by science is supposed to be made with the understanding that it might be falsifiable later, no matter how convinced we are at the time of any absolute or foolproof validity.

But the corporate monolith that has become Scientism deliberately ignores authentic studies performed in accordance with the scientific method because it believes it already has all of the answers, and if the studies don’t align with what the technocrats say is true, our modern establishment rejects them. As Semmelweis was rejected.

Scientism’s Myth of Progress assures us of how stupid people were in the past no matter what period of history it exists within. What’s interesting is how we seem to forget how this phenomenon of ever-present stupidity continues occurring around us all the time in the present moment without us ever noticing. We know that Erin Brockovich happened way back then, but don’t seem to notice the Alberta Tar Sands a few hundred miles to the north of us right now. Are the emotions, ambitions and delusions of laboratory laborers really any different today than they were in the time of Semmelweis, 175 years ago?

The hubris that dominates modern Scientism also echoes the fate of Galileo, when the ball of persecution was still in the Church’s court. His innovative discoveries were viewed by the Vatican as a challenge to political power and thus castigated as blasphemous heresy. And when it finally became obvious that his observations were simply fundamental, the pendulum of persecution started swinging the other direction, giving way to a subjugation and prejudice of an identical, but much more insidious nature. This new subjugation is that of Scientific Materialism, which transforms the method of free inquiry engendered in the original intentions of the scientific method into a dogmatic religion that denounces unpopular evidence that doesn’t align with lucrative political agendas.

The real shortcoming of Scientific Materialism is the belief in one and only one objective reality. A reality that exists “out there” and that we can all agree upon. Right-think. Just like every other fundamentalist religion that has ever existed, Scientism also proclaims itself to be the one true way. True believers of the Scientific dogma believe arrogantly that theirs is the only “correct view” and any perception that challenges or runs counter to this view is useless and laughable. Yet they are unable to see how their mentality is identical to the intolerance of religious fanaticism.

True believers tend to be ignorant, not in spite of their highly specialized training, but because of it. Patterns that seem obvious to many others are dismissed by the institution of almighty Scientism, which relies instead on the pathological neurosis of “coincidence theory” to explain away data that doesn’t fit the proper worldview. In another deviation from the scientific method, Scientism relies heavily upon confirmation bias, the tendency to notice and assign significance to observations that confirm our beliefs, while filtering out or rationalizing away observations that do not fit with our prior beliefs and expectations.

“I believe that the mechanical model for understanding nature is a metaphor that science has got stuck on : this prevailing idea that humans are machines, biological robots with computer-like brains. This belief will, to the advanced species that we are evolving into, seem as absurd as the flat-earth theories that we scoff at now… The time we live in now is similar, because the mechanistic, reductive dogma of “Scientism” – the belief that everything in the world can be explained using the scientific method – is about to be similarly overthrown. There are just too many questions unanswered and unanswerable. Consciousness, the consciousness that is now experiencing these words, has no explanation in science. Scientists believe that matter has no consciousness and that consciousness comes from matter, that 70 percent of the universe is made from dark matter, although they don’t know what that is, what it does, or anything. Just that it’s there. Science requires faith, the way religion does. Science requires acceptance of metaphor, just the way religion does.”
~Russell Brand, Revolution (48, 49)

Many readers are no doubt familiar with a slogan plastered across yard signs and T-shirts over the last few years which proudly proclaim “We believe in science.” But science is not a system compatible with belief. A cursory understanding of the scientific method reveals that science is a system of hypothesis and examination, a system that can only be perverted by such amorphous concepts as belief and faith. A more apt and encouraging slogan might be “We understand science.” However, anyone who drops cash on a sign proclaiming their “belief” in a system that is precisely intended to circumvent the need for belief, likely does not understand science. The slogan itself is inherently self defeating. Nevertheless, such badges are conspicuously displayed as a virtue signaling status symbol proudly proclaiming “My tribe is right.”

In fact, it seems a preexisting superiority complex characterizes those attracted towards materialism as a means to express a deep-seated disregard for others. This complex is attracted to the dogmatism of a Scientific religion as a means to condescend to those regarded as inferior and thus unable to argue with complicated terminology and specialized vernacular. Skeptics are regarded as lacking the superior mental faculties bestowed to our authorities by sanctimonious Scientism. Such individuals are prone to forget that the “Big Bang” is nothing more than another invention of the human imagination.

Terrence McKenna once proclaimed Science’s all-encompassing stance is “Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest,” with the miracle in this case signifying the spontaneous appearance of all existing matter, energy, phenomena and consciousness in a single instant from nothing. “If you can believe that,” Terrence said, “you can believe anything.” It cannot yet be proven, but to even hint at questioning its validity invites accusation of blasphemy against Holy Mother Science, after which you can anticipate ad hominem attacks against your character for going against the orthodox wisdom of the Scientific establishment; just like what happened to Semmelweis. If jealousy and vanity can influence science so readily, what other human follies can influence science?

What makes our society so perpetually certain that we have everything figured out this time?

Establishment hacks have never stopped dismissing people like Semmelweis as paranoid and delusional, even dangerous. Today he would be labeled as suffering from Illusory Pattern Perception, the modern DSM diagnosis for people who are making too many connections. Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, and Bethany McLean’s The Smartest Guys In The Room were all based on publishing efforts that were roundly dismissed by establishment authorities as “baseless conspiracy theories.” But large numbers of people are now aware of American troops in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the existence of JSOC, and the scandals of ENRON, only because of the courageous efforts of these three authors, respectively.

Three things cannot be long hidden; the sun, the moon and the truth. Although Semmelweis’ discoveries were persecuted during his own lifetime, his mark was likewise impossible to erase. Just a few years after his death, the practice of hand washing finally earned widespread acceptance when French microbiologist Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease. Building on the work of Semmelweis, Pasteur completed a comprehensive theory, couched in language that his colleagues could accept. Today we recognize Semmelweis as a pioneer and one of the founders of antiseptic procedures. But authorities at the time were convinced he was a kook.

If science as a discipline is to be practiced ethically, its initiates must retain an inherent suspicion of any and all forms of imposed authority. Experimental evidence shows that authorities throughout history regularly attempt to smear the character of anyone in possession of truths that are corrosive to the existing power structure. Countless innovative pioneers are silenced and ridiculed every day, ultimately on the same basis that Semmelweis was canceled from Vienna; not because they’re wrong, but because they’re unpopular with people at the top.

But sometimes it’s good to be unpopular with the authorities. Semmelweis saved so many lives that he became known to greater society as the “Savior of Mothers.” We don’t respect him because he followed the rules. We don’t remember his name because he fell in line and did as he was told. Today his face appears on coins and posters and his name on streets and libraries because he remained true to the Hippocratic Oath; because he exhibited courage by testing his hypothesis against existing dogma at the expense of his own reputation; because he gave his life in order that others might be saved. We could learn from Semmelweis’ example, put down the slogans and platitudes, question instead of believe, and stand up for what’s right, even if it costs us.

Semmelweis 50 Euro piece, introduced 2008, Austrian Mint

No wonder George Bernard Shaw proclaimed that all great truths begin as blasphemies. Doing what is right is not always popular and doing what is popular is not always right, but history tends to vindicate truth tellers. It wouldn’t kill us to lend an ear to controversial views that authorities deem as objectionable. Quite the contrary, our lives might very well depend on it. After all, according to Aristotle, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without necessarily accepting it.

Ignaz Semmelweis