#39 Dr. Semmelweis: The Power of Political Norms to Tilt the Outcome of Conflict

In the previous post I wrote about Dr. Ignaz Philip Semmelweis (1818 – 1865) a medical doctor who lost two of his residency positions in hospitals for directing his doctors to wash their hands before assisting women in childbirth. Semmelweis formulated the equivalent of a germ theory of disease, from inferences alone, a full two decades before microbes were factored into medical practice. His story and others such as Galileo’s, illustrate that the establishment reacts strongly to ideas that run counter to it and are ahead of the times. Conflict between the establishment and individuals who advance revolutionary thought is inevitable.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, 1857 (Photo from the National Library of Medicine)

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, 1857 (Photo from the National Library of Medicine)


My recounting of Semmelweis’s story is a simplification, even if it is a largely truthful and instructive one. I would now like to expand the story. In this blog I will reveal several political factors that contributed to the tilting of power dynamics against Semmelweis and against the acceptance of his theory.

Foremost was the fact that his findings suggested his colleagues had been the direct cause of thousands of easily preventable deaths. One, Dr. Michaelis, who realized Semmelweis was right, committed suicide upon the realization that he had infected a favourite niece who subsequently died. For many, this inconvenient implication of the theory and social consequences made it easier to stay with more accepted explanations for childbed fever.

There are at least two more political factors.

Semmelweis was Hungarian born of German descent at the time of the Austro Hungarian Empire. He was pro–Hungarian liberation at a time of Hungarian uprisings. When he lost his position at the hospital (the Allgemeine Krankenhaus) in Vienna, Austria, there was speculation that his ethnicity and political affiliation contributed to the decision to dismiss him.

Furthermore, at the time, women had few rights. If they had had the greater power that they do today, it is hard to imagine that Semmelwies’s scientific differences with many of his colleagues would not have become politicized and his ideas further advanced by women. Before he instituted hand washing, it was more dangerous to be in one particular clinic serviced by doctors, who were also dissecting cadavers, than to give birth in an alleyway. Women begged not to be taken to this clinic where one in six died, whereas in a different part of the same hospital there was a birth clinic run by midwives with a high survival rate.

Semmelweis’s ethnicity, his political affiliation, the implications of his theory, and the status of gender relationships in society were political factors that if different could have altered the power relations between him and the establishment, and reversed history’s quashing of his brilliant observations and findings. When Pasteur and others proved that microbes were the cause of childbed fever two decades later and antiseptic practices were instituted, Semmelsweis’s contributions were not recognized.

Conflict always occurs within a social and political context which may significantly influence its evolution and outcome. A contemporary example is the knowledge and attitude towards domestic abuse, which is still in transition. However, it is fair to say that today spousal conflict is viewed through a lens of possible abuse. Both in Court and through mediation, abusers are less likely to achieve outcomes that are favourable to themselves and unfair to the other partner than they were 30 years ago.


Note, for this blog I referenced: Nuland, B. Sherwin. (2003). The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. London: Norton & Company.


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