According to Kevin Ashton’s “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor at Vienna General in 1846, and the medical community was mired in 2,000-year-old the belief that the body’s health was based on a balance of four fluids: Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Vienna General had two maternity clinics. In one, women gave birth with the help of midwives, and both mother and child survived at normal rates for the time. In the other, women gave birth with the help of doctors, and women and children died in droves from puerperal fever. The maternity mortality rate was so high, women were better off giving birth in the street.
The doctors would often go from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies. Semmelweis thought the fever might be transferred from the corpses to the women. He convinced the other doctors to wash their hands, and the deaths in the clinic dropped from 18 percent to two percent, the same percentage as in the clinic with the midwives. In some months, the death rate was zero percent during the two years that Semmelweis was practicing at Vienna General.
In spite of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence and the approximately 500 women, and who knows how many children, whose lives Semmelweis saved through handwashing, his views were rejected. His detractors questioned his scientific method; Semmelweis didn’t run any experiments. They said he didn’t put forth a clear theory; he didn’t know what was responsible for the transfer of disease, he suggested it was some sort of organic material. One American doctor claimed that “A gentleman’s hands are clean” (p. 73) and couldn’t carry disease.
Semmelweis expected common sense to prevail, but at the cost of thousands of women’s and children’s lives, the medical establishment refused to implement handwashing as a standard procedure. The change that Semmelweis proposed challenged the underlying beliefs of the establishment, and those beliefs were too sacred to challenge by a demonstrably better way to do things.
Semmelweis ended up losing job, “being lured to an asylum” and beaten. He died two weeks later, and Vienna General’s doctors stopped washing their hands. Mother and child mortality rates rose by 600 percent.
Semmelweis’ handwashing challenged ingrained and incorrect ideas about the body and health. It challenged ingrained ideas of identity. It challenged the status quo. Semmelweis wasn’t the only one who challenged the establishment, but his story is illustrative of what can happen when people put forth an idea that disturbs the everyday workings of an industry, government or other established organization.
If you still don’t think it’s difficult to change people and culture, many men today don’t wash their hands after using the toilet or urinal in public places where peer pressure should be in effect. They spread disease because they don’t believe germs affect them (and some don’t believe germs are real).
New ideas aren’t readily accepted by anyone, including creators themselves. People always say they want change, but they choose what’s familiar. If you put forth a new idea, be prepared to fight for it and for yourself. Creativity needs fortitude, strength and a healthy dose of wisdom.
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