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When we look back on the history of science and scientific progress, we celebrate the pioneers who dared to make life-changing discoveries. The truth is that the first people to introduce a paradigm-shift almost always face persecution, and many are overshadowed by the less-controversial minds who follow them.
Such is the case of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who fought a lifelong battle against a disease he couldn’t see and that the medical establishment repeatedly told him wasn’t real. How does a scientist or doctor combat bacteria when they don’t even know it exists? The epidemics bacteria, viruses, and germs brought to innocent hospital patients wracked hospitals of the day, but the history of medicine is as much one of complacency and cosmic explanations as it is about breakthroughs.
Ignaz Semmelweis used incredible powers of logic and deductive reasoning to isolate a problem so complex that it stymied all the scientific minds of continental Europe, first by examining data within the clinics of his own hospital, and then identifying the source of infection. Through years of refining an antiseptic regimen that would end up saving an incalculable number of lives — and paving the way for better-known scientific giants like Lister and Pasteur — Semmelweis compiled one of the era’s great medical texts, one that would change healthcare worldwide.
And for that, he was ridiculed, criticized, fired, dismissed, institutionalized, and beaten to de*th. The shocking story of Ignaz Semmelweis is the real story of scientific progress.
*** Additional Reading ***
Semmelweis, Ignaz. “The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever,” 1861; Translated by K. Codell Carter, 1983: https://www.amazon.com/Etiology-Prophylaxis-Childbed-Wisconsin-Publications/dp/0299093646
Semmelweis, Fjernsynsteatret (Television Theater, Norway), 1983: https://tv.nrk.no/serie/fjernsynsteatret/1983/FTEA00005183
Semmelweis, 1952 (Courtesy of the Hungarian National Film Archive): https://youtu.be/z3Xg5mXW218
Sla*ghter, Frank J. “Immortal Magyar: Semmelweis, Conqueror of Childbed Fever,” 1950: https://www.amazon.com/Immortal-Magyar-Semmelweis-Conqueror-Childbed/dp/B0006ASE5M
Obenchain, Theodore G. “Genius Belabored: Childbed Fever and the Tragic Life of Ignaz Semmelweis,” 2016: https://www.amazon.com/Genius-Belabored-Childbed-Tragic-Semmelweis/dp/0817319298
*** CREDITS ***
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Research and Writing by Matthew Tabor
Editing by John Swan
Huge Thanks To Paula Lieber
Vsauce’s Curiosity Box: https://www.curiositybox.com/
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