human behavior

New word: Semmelweis reflex

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Health & Medicine, New Word by humanb on December 13, 2006

ignazSemmelweis reflex
: the dismissing or rejecting of information out of hand, automatically and without thought, inspection, or experiment

eponym
: Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), German-Hungarian physician – a.k.a. “the father of infection control” and “the savior of mothers”

As in:

When it comes to Iraq and what is possible for the Coalition to advance and achieve at this stage, George Bush exhibits a stubborn Semmelweis reflex.

Background
From 1841 to 1843, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis witnessed an alarming death rate of pregnant women in the maternity ward of Allgemeine Krankenhaus teaching hospital in Vienna. Semmelweis noticed that pregnant women under the care of (male) medical students and physicians died after delivery at a rate of 13-18%, while women under the care of midwives died at the much lower rate of 3%. The women died of puerperal or “childbed” fever.

When Semmelweis’ colleague died of puerperal fever after cutting his finger dissecting a corpse, Semmelweis realised the cause of illness was to be found in exposure to cadavers. The (male) medical students and physicians would often go directly to maternity wards from performing autopsies. The midwives did not perform autopsies.

Semmelweis instituted mandatory hand sanitizing with a chloride of lime solution on the ward, and maternal mortality rates plummeted to 2%. He then required the sanitizing of medical instruments, and the rate further dropped to 1%.

Semmelweis’ superior, Dr. Johann Klein, rejected out of hand Semmelweis’ conclusions. Klein was convinced the drop in the death rate was due to a new hospital ventilation system, in keeping with the prevailing miasmatic (“bad air”) theory of disease. Moreover, Semmelweis’ colleagues bristled at the notion that they as doctors were causing the deaths of their patients.

Semmelweis’ discovery was not acknowledged until 20 years later, when Louis Pasteur discovered the germ theory of disease, and Joseph Lister developed his antiseptic techniques. Semmelweis suffered a mental breakdown and died in a Viennese mental asylum from a beating inflicted by asylum staff. He was 47.

* * *

I sincerely hope it won’t take the United States executive branch nearly so long to think critically, pragmatically and ethically when determining the best course of action in Iraq. We simply must be able to accept the possibility that in some of our actions, we are doing harm, where we mean to do good.

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3 Responses

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  1. […] human behavior « New term: Semmelweis reflex […]

  2. nosugrefneb said, on December 19, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    This is an amazing post. I’d not heard that term before.

  3. humanb said, on December 19, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks. It’s a great term and a good story.


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