Effetto Semmelweis

Semmelweiss reflex and Galileo’s trial

The dissent towards innovation can be found in every epoch and, in a certain way, it can be considered as part of the human being. In opposition to common beliefs, however, such a tendency does not belong to fundametalist religions or reactionary regimes only.

Imagine being brutally segregated in an asylum, deprived of your dignity and mocked by the rest of the world just because you suggested the necessity of washing hands accurately after having dissected rotting corpses for autopsies. Such an unbelievable scenario may recall those tragic happenings of Galileo’s era or the methods used by conservative regimes. 

However, this episode occurred in XIX century’s progressive Vienna, where Ignac Semmelweiss, who will be known as “mothers’ rescuer” afterwards, received the same treatment by the Austrian and Hungarian greatest minds for having supposed that cause behind puerperal fever. 

Puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever, is a deadly bacterial infection of the female reproductive tract following childbirth or miscarriage. It is caused by infected wounds of the uterine mucosa which lead to bacterial infection. A century ago it was killing one mother out of four and its etiology was still far from being clear. Doctor Semmelweis demonstrated that the passage of doctors from mortuary to delivery room with their hands washed in the middle could considerably reduce the infections. He carefully applied the scientific method despite working in an epoch in which microbiology was still dawning (although four centuries from the end of the Middle Age had already passed). As previously said, a solution that now appears simple and predictable was welcomed with hostile indifference and prejudices by the scientific community which defined it as “evil outrage”.

Speaking of heresies, Galileo Galilei affair is the most obvious example of the immobilism and dogmatism that have always characterized religious institutions. He was condemned by the Inquisition after a long and intricate trial for having supported Copernican heliocentrism. Moreover, the sentence was signed by 7 of the total 10 inquisitors and in certain moments a considerable part of the clergy timidly admitted its support and admiration towards the Italian genius. In other words, Galileo underwent a completely different treatment than Semmelweis, who was abandoned in a cell by the so-called repositories of Illuminism without the possibility to recant. Ironically, when Semmelweis left the asylum for an urgent surgery, he died of septicemia due to the bad hygiene of health workers. 

Obviously, it is not an isolated episode. For instance, the well-known theory of electrolytic dissociation according to which the dissolution of an electrolyte in water causes its disintegration into two charged parts, was initially judged as a strange oddity, despite bringing the young Arrhenius to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Before the recognition, Arrhenius was even risking its graduation because chemistry experts of that time seemed to doubt his theory.

Therefore, these historical facts contribute to a deeper and more conscious consideration over a wide range of socio-cultural phenomena. The spontaneous rejection of those breakthrough discoveries that dismantle even the strongest certainties now takes the name of “Semmelweis reflex”. According to intellectual honesty, it should not be exclusively linked to religious doctrines or reactionary regimes by excluding them from the discussion, but rather it should be thought of as a recurrent phenomenon or a sort of feature of authentic and essential human nature. Hungarian and Austrian scientists did not accept the questioning of their traditional operative protocol; as Jesuits, the custodial order of science that included the brightest mathematicians and physicists of their time, were worried that their monopoly and material wealth could have been affected by Galilei’s contrasting ideas. 

Be careful not to attribute universal tendencies to a certain ideology and to analyse individual phenomena as social. Sometimes, the use of traditional mottos results more effective to spread a message than refined philosophical discourses: the pot calling the kettle black.

Source text: https://www.antropia.it/riflesso-di-semmelweis-e-processo-a-galilei/

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