Ignaz Semmelweis was 100% right and went crazy because of it. You might not recognize the name, but Semmelweis had a master’s touch in fixing the unfixable. Therefore, he was ignored for 20 years, and died in an insane asylum. Does this sound like craziness? In the real world, the best ideas don’t always survive, and probability and chance can overcome true understanding.
Semmelweis was a doctor and worked at Vienna’s general hospital in the early 1800s. At the time, going to the hospital to deliver a baby was a very dangerous affair. The mortality rates for deliveries in these hospitals would range somewhere from around 10 to 35%.
Just think about this, if you had a child and were forced to go to the hospital, the mother was playing a very dangerous game of Russian roulette. Semmelweis worked at the Vienna hospital, which had two separate sections. One section had the babies delivered by midwives. The other section had the babies delivered by doctors. He noticed that mothers that had their babies delivered by midwives had mortality rates that were far lower than the rates of death when the baby was delivered by the doctors.
The Doctors of the day had no concept of infections and had no concept of germs. So after they operated or helped deliver a baby, they would continue to wear the same clothes. Having a good bit of blood on you showed that you were a busy man, and had been taken care of business. However, this was a breeding ground for disease and death.
Semmelweis had deep convictions and really was concerned for the people under his care. When a close friend Jakob Kolletschka was killed by an unfortunate infection from a dirty scalpel, Semmelweis was able to put all the parts together and understand that it was something from the dirty scalpel that carried the disease. In a similar fashion, if the mothers were dying it must be something similar. The rates of infection and high levels of death must be by something similar to the infected scalpel.
Therefore, Semmelweis hypothesized that some how the doctors were carrying death from one mother to the other. He then had the foresight to test various compounds and stumbled on a disinfectant (chlorine wash) that some how stopped the progression of disease. If the doctors would wash in the solution, the rates of infection and consequent death dropped to 1%.
He published his ideas with the backing data around 1848. If you can image yourself in a similar way, you would be excited to understand the power that you were about to unleash on the world. Needless death and misery would soon be eradicated by doing something as simple as washing your hands in a special solution that was easy to come by. However, he did not receive a warm reception, and instead he was ridiculed for his efforts by other doctors that knew he couldn’t be right.
Semmelweis was distraught. Here he was saving many lives, and yet his peers had no concept of what he was talking about. He did what most of us would do. He yelled the louder and insisted that he was right. This started a stressful, nasty war that went on with his peers for many years. He was the crackpot. He was the guy that just would not let it go. It eventually got to him, and he got more abusive. This ended with him in a mental institution, where he had a fight with the staff, and they beat him to death. His theories were validated just a few years after his death, by a man better known for a mouthwash.
Joseph Lister in Glascow, followed down a similar line of thought, but not because he had followed Semmelweis.
Instead, Lister followed the work of Louis Pasteur, who had a clear theory of germs as the infecting agent. While Lister used carbolic acid, the end result was the same as the chlorine rinse. When Doctors would disinfect themselves, rates of disease would drop like a rock.
To understand Lister, we might want to understand that Lister was born a Quaker, and while he later joined the mainstream Scottish Church, he was used to being an outcast. The Quakers were a strange and odd people at the time. Many couldn’t quite understand what they were all about, and I’m sure that this influenced Lister’s unbringing. Through a series of article and visits, by around 1870, this new idea of being clean was taking off dramatically.
Lister had a different approach. He said things more gently. He had a series of followers that would echo his words. He visited many other hospitals to explain his thoughts. It is said that after he had down this, he returned to Glascow as a local celebrity. People would come to listen to him, and gain his understanding.
The story behind this is that humans, and we are all humans, have massive blindspots that keep us from seeing the truth. We are not higher evolved than the doctors of Semmelweis’s day. All the shortcoming of these doctors are present not in others, but in ourselves. It is only through patience and kindness do ideas take off.
Matt 7:3 calls this out in a dramatic fashion when our Lord calls out, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
This verses has been a great source of insight for many years for me. I have heard the allusion explained many ways.
When Christ says this verse, the first thing that we should realize is that he exaggerated to the extreme for effect. There are some that think that he was showing humor here to his audience, and this makes a lot of sense to me. Somehow we think of Jesus as some person that we could not relate to that sat around in a mystic fog. He was around 6 foot tall. He was white. He smiled knowingly like he was always had a track on an inside joke.
In reality, he was a Hebrew. Looked nothing like a white German guy. And he probably had a good sense of humor, including these saying such as “plank in your eye” and “a camel through a needle’s eye.” This is the oldest form of humor, where the man making the joke simply calls out an effect to the extreme. My wife “enjoys” worrying about our children. Now, she really does worry about some important stuff, but she worries too much. However, if our family is driving to church, I know I can crack the entire van up (with all 4 of our kids) by saying things like, “Don’t tell Mom about the papercut that you got, you’ll be off to the surgeon.” Or, “If Mom hears you sneezing, you better be prepared to spend a couple of days in bed.” While it cracks everybody up, Mom also knows that it is telling her to “worry less.”
So, when our Lord talks about the plank in our eye, the local audience of the day probably had a good laugh. “Yeah, Lord don’t you know it,” they probably echoed back to him.
However, on this one, there is a deeper truth. A speck in your brothers eye is very small. That exact same speck in your own eye looks much larger, or even as big as a plank. It is because it is so closer to you. So while we can see the plank in our neighbors eye, we really should be seeing the speck in our own eye because it should be as big as a plank. Yet, we don’t see it. We are just blind. Jesus was telling us that the thing that easiest to see and obvious to see, is completely overlooked by ourselves.
Why? Well the answer to this one should be obvious if you’ve read my last couple of posts. The problem is cognitive bias.
This concept is very important in the Bible and repeated multiple times. Isaiah speaks to it first, and then his words are repeated in the New Testament. In Matt 13:14, it is simply said as, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be every seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s hearts has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.”
Semmelweis was absolutely correct. His methods solved infection and saved lives. However, the right message in the wrong container never gets heard. In light of the tragedy that happened here, I need to repeat this because my point will not seem to make sense to many.
1. Semmelweis’s peers had a blindspot. They could not see that Semmelweis had a technique that could save many, many lives.
2. Semmelweis had a blindspot. He could not see that the way that presented his story and his data to other only made them dig in their heels and not respond.
Wikipedia describes his state nicely, “Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind…”
It is incredibly hard being right and having nobody listen to you.
It is incredibly wrong to be totally correct and not present your story in a fashion that allows others to listen to you.
I recently read a college text book on leadership. There are all types of theories and schools of thoughts on leadership. Some people think that Leaders must have a particular trait, and these traits make you a leader. Some people think that leadership is about the situation that you are in, and depending on the situation, you modify your behavior to lead others. Others talk to the contract made between certain followers and the leader (LMX).
In reality, there are only two things that leaders do:
1. They are capable of determining the right path for the future.
2. They are capable of talking others into that path.
If you have just #1, you are a hermit. You have secret knowledge that nobody else has, but this does nobody any good. Knowledge that is yours alone is good only to you. If you have #2, but you don’t know the right way to go, you are a super salesperson. The original splinter in most of our eyes is not recognizing that when we preach the good news, we have to do it in a way that opens the gospel up for those that we are talking to.
Finally, one more thought for the day. It turns out that these blindspots are extremely difficult for us to see. The speck in our own eye is a speck that we cannot take out ourselves. Really, what we need to do is find somebody else that can call out the spot for us Highly effective organizations have people that can correct each other in such a fashion that the entire group can get better.