#40 Dr. Semmelweis: The Complexity of Conflict Stories

In the last two posts, I wrote about Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis who ran into stiff opposition from the medical establishment in the 1850s for asking doctors to wash their hands between dissecting cadavers and assisting women in childbirth even when he presented convincing statistical evidence that the washing routine was reducing mortality of mothers. You can read the first blog here and the second here.

In this blog post, I add further complexity to the Semmelweis story by introducing evidence that Dr. Semmelweis himself contributed significantly to the rejection of his theory of infection. If you are of the mind that we write our own destinies, you would find agreement with Dr. Sherwin Nuland  (Yale Medical School) who charted in his book The Doctors’ Plague the understandable, but also unwise choices and actions taken by Dr. Semmelweis.

Semmelweis and his discovery celebrated on a German stamp

Semmelweis and his discovery celebrated on a German stamp. You can see more examples of Semmelweis on stamps by clicking here.


Semmelweis was supported by three brilliant young doctors at the leading Viennese General Hospital. These three were slowly but steadily overthrowing rigid and outdated practices of the establishment. Despite their encouragements, Semmelweis was resistant to both publishing the results of his practice and to conducting the experiments that would help confirm his theory. It was in fact these doctors who presented his findings rather than Semmelweis himself.

Semmelweis on the other hand insisted that the clinical evidence for the benefits of hand-washing was over-whelming and that experiments were unnecessary. Semmelweis may have been correct but it is reasonable to follow accepted research methods if you want your new ideas to be considered.

Furthermore, Semmelweis did not take criticism well. He lashed out against those who disagreed with him. He made enemies out of staff in hospitals who would then sometimes sabotage his attempts at instituting hand-washing and other antiseptic routines. As a result, in 1851 when he had been stripped of various privileges, he left the Viennese General Hospital overnight without informing his influential young colleagues of his plans.

Semmelweis was certainly exposed to humiliating experiences by the medical establishment, but he also walked away from the support that could have lead to the acceptance of his methods. Eight years after leaving Vienna, when he finally wrote a book about his discoveries and methods, it was poorly organized, repetitive, full of criticisms of others, and largely unedited. These qualities contributed to the book’s lack of acceptance.

When we focus on his personal failings, Semmelweis appears to have been instrumental in preventing his theory and practices from being taken seriously.

When we experience a conflict – whether the conflict is our own or that of others – we construct a story from various events that have occurred. As well as using Semmelweis to illustrate various features of some conflicts, I am indirectly attempting to highlight a central feature of all conflict: The way we construct our story will impact how we continue to think and feel about the conflict, and also how we approach it.


In the Semmelweis example, each of two previous blogs have told his story differently. In the first blog, the story portrays him as a hapless player in the human drama in which ideas that are ahead of their time will be rejected. In the second blog, the story paints him as a victim of various powerful political forces that were stacked against him. He can also be understood (in this blog) as a personality with self-centred (narcisistic) tendencies who was unable to follow established courses of action and behaviour that would lead to the acceptance of new practices.

All of these stories are true. Each story in the Semmelweis narrative presents an important thread of the whole. Together they form a greater truth than any one story on its own.

Conflicts are frequently complex, containing multiple truths. In order to address our conflicts well, we are frequently challenged to expand our stories to include elements that we have previously not considered. By organizing multiple narratives into a coherent and more complex story we are able to build a basis for more effective engagement with others and more likely resolution.


Reference: Nuland, B. Sherwin. (2003). The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. London: Norton & Company.

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2 Responses to #40 Dr. Semmelweis: The Complexity of Conflict Stories

  1. Amanda says:

    Great perspective. I’ve enjoyed this series.

    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Amanda,

      Thank you for your kind remark. If you comment again in the future I will most likely reply much more quickly.
      Apologies for this delay,


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