Washing hands is crazy, we need more crazy

Published Apr 7, 2020


CAPE TOWN - In 2020, one thing is for sure, we all know the importance of washing hands and its role in preventing disease.

In 1846 however, Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who first theorised the importance and preventative effects of washing hands made enemies and lost his job. Eventually leading to the pioneer being committed to a mental asylum and his death in 1865 at 47 years old.

Despite the relevance of his work 174 years later, it is rather in the symbolic relevance of his story the world needs to realise and not repeat again. Critical thinkers and social entrepreneurs who like Ignaz Semmelweis challenged the norm with powerful ideas that seemed crazy, need to be encouraged.

It is the sole trait that allowed human beings continued existence, improved lives in every aspect from business to healthcare and the reason why 'ideaphobes' need to take a back seat in times of crisis.

Ignaz Semmelweis and how washing hands was considered ‘radical’

Semmelweis ushered in the “golden age of the physician-scientist” where doctors were required to have scientific knowledge. In 1846, the Hungarian doctor arrived at his new role in the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Vienna.

Immediately he started collecting data due to the high rate of women dying of childbed fever. One maternity ward had purely doctors and medical students which had a death rate of close to five times more than the second maternity ward which was staffed by only female nurses.

After considering all the notable physical differences in procedure between the two and still not finding a solution, he traveled to Venice to find some sort of perspective. On his return, one of his colleagues had fallen ill and died.

By the same childbed fever which was thought to be sickness only women who gave birth died from.

After much deliberation, it led him to the fact that only doctors performed autopsies while nurses did not. His theory considered particles being on the hands of doctors after autopsies, and once they proceeded with childbirth after giving an autopsy, these same particles ended up infecting the new mothers during childbirth which led them to their death.

Nobody understood the concept of germs in his time, nor did he, but his discovery led to him giving an order to the medical staff; clean your hands and instruments with a chlorine solution and not just soap. As a result, death rates in the maternity clinic fell dramatically.

However, nobody celebrated this radical life-saving discovery. Semmelweis's theory was interpreted as an attack on doctors themselves. He could not understand the ignorance, angrily criticised those who could not see the obvious, and ended up making notable enemies as a result of this perceived disobedience to the order. Doctors all around Europe refuted his claims, they did not wash their hands and people died as a consequence. As his tragic history goes; the dismissal of his claims and the massive impact of it understandably made him bitter and was admitted to a mental institution where he died in 1865.

Why 'Ideaphobes' need to take a back seat

Pioneers, social entrepreneurs like Semmelweis share similar fates due to their seemingly disruptive ideas and passionate views which is undeniably for the benefit of the many as opposed to the few who find comfort in habit. Their ideas change society. From Henry Ford and Steve Jobs who were seen to destroy industries, reimagined and changed the order in its entirety which still impacts our lives today.

The destruction of colonial and apartheid regimes in South Africa, Africa, and the United States, for example, had an undeniably positive change in the lives of many regardless of how it was and still might be perceived today. There is now a wealth of sportsmen, scientists, and innovative ideas designed to help others irrespective of race, religion or creed that could not have been brought forward if things stayed the same.

While in a more economic sense, Harvard Business Review brings forward how companies like Gucci stayed relevant in the market place and grew sales by 136%. All while doing the unthinkable, the fashion giants created a shadow board of young employees from all parts of the business to work in association with the senior board.

While companies like Prada witnessed a decline in sales in the same period by trying to remain the same and later co-CEO Patrizio Bertelli later noted; “We made a mistake”.

The list goes on and on of how innovation, a break away from the existing order, created either more profits or better quality lives or saved lives.

It is also undeniable to say that we are all 'ideaphobes', we all to a certain degree, resist and fear change or new ideas. Human beings are creatures of habit by nature.

However, it is in times of crisis, like the pandemic of Covid-19 where all are not safe, that the seemingly alternative, disruptive or different needs to be at least considered or explored.

In order for all to benefit from. So we will never repeat how washing hands to prevent the spread of sickness was refuted as inconsequential.

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