Commentary by Dr. Mike Ross:
Two physicians, continents apart, discover simple hand-washing will easily cure a deadly pandemic afflicting young mothers and their families. Unbelievably, physician leaders and the medical community refuse to administer the cure despite death rates affecting over a third of moms in many communities just as they deliver their babies. What is it in the heads and hearts of human beings that mounts such riotous resistance to hearing the truth and honoring it with authentic action, even when it poses piddling inconvenience?
Lessons from Drs. Holmes & Semmelweis
In the 1840s when modern obstetrics advanced birthing from homesteads to hospitals, puerperal fever soared killing up to 35 percent of mothers in childbirth with mortality averaging 12-16 percent. Using scientific reasoning, American physician, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809 – 1894), father of the famous, longest serving Supreme Court Justice of the same name, and his Hungarian counterpart, obstetrician Dr. Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis (1818 – 1865), each independently identified hand-washing as the cure.
In two nations an ocean apart, each physician faced torturous rejection, scorn, and harassment from medical colleagues for disclosing such preposterous, life-saving truth, and for urging them to wash their hands. In an 1843 paper, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, then 34 years old, first described his authoritative observation that puerperal fever was transmitted to postpartum moms by medical caretakers. Simple hand washing could prevent it. As the years passed, he encountered intractable resistance, ridicule and opprobrium from colleagues and medical experts of the day for insisting upon this truth. They would rather let new moms die than admit they should wash their hands!
Of course hand-washing was not appreciated back then, as today. It served other purposes, meanings and rituals, such as at meals, or as Pontius Pilate washed his hands, which dated back thousands of years through biblical times.
The pandemic and professional resistance to resolving it endured long after Dr. Holmes retired as Dean of Harvard Medical School in 1853, a decade after he first wrote how to quell it. Though he remained a medical school professor until 1885, Dr. Holmes steadily diverted his sharp intellect from medical practice to authoring poetry and essays. These works earned him high acclaim along with Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow and Whittier in the pantheon of 19th century New England writers.
Dr. Semmelweis proved that cleanliness reduced the obstetrical death rate to 1-2 percent, yet was dismissed from Viennese hospitals, persecuted by the medical community and forced to relocate to another nation 135 miles away in Budapest, Hungary. Outraged at the cold, cruel indifference of his medical colleagues, Dr. Semmelweis wrote confrontational letters to prominent European obstetricians railing that it was murder to let these Moms die when an easy, cheap cure was immediately “handy.” His contemporaries spurned him as insane prompting his wife to commit him to a mental asylum in 1865 just eighteen years after he identified the cure for puerperal sepsis. Dr. Semmelweis suffered a major beating by asylum guards soon after admission acquiring wounds that would soon become infected. Ironically, the infection spread into his blood stream, just as it did for his deathly sick post-partum moms. He died from sepsis in the asylum two weeks later—only 47 years old.
Interestingly, both of these physicians began their careers as law students, yet remarkably felt called to professional lives of healing and Medical School training instead. Unknown to each other, their lives and vocational calling converged in pursuit of real justice and true medicine around their common observation that simple, routine hand-washing by physicians and health care staff would save numerous young lives. Such an outcome would administer great mercy to the children, spouses, families, and communities where these Moms managed their homesteads.
Incredibly, medical authorities in the US and Europe rejected the truth offered by each of these inspired physicians. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes relinquished the personal mission but Dr. Semmelweis laid down his life pursuing justice to the very end. Other scientists and physicians confirmed and built upon the observations of Dr. Holmes and Semmelweis, but eighty years passed before hand washing became routine practice in medicine.
So, what is it that sometimes motivates the most learned, inspired and influential minds to reject truth at all costs while others agonize and persevere to usher it into the light of day? How might mere mortals aspire to achieve the acceptance of truth by those who steadfastly reject it?
Logic would predict that authentic empathy and love would succeed most often, but how?