Ignaz Semmelweis’s failure to communicate

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Ignaz Semmelweis noticed something strange was happening in the two maternity clinics in his hospital during the early 19th Century, at a time when puerperal fever, which often proved fatal, was sweeping across Europe.

In the first clinic, where babies were delivered by doctors, death rates were shockingly high.

But in the second clinic, where babies were delivered by midwives, infant mortality rates were consistently low.

Semmelweis realised that the doctors were often entering their maternity clinic having performed autopsies without washing their hands.

Worried that “cadaverous particles” might be responsible, he instigated a strict rule that required the doctors to carefully wash their hands with chlorine each time before entering their clinic.

Sure enough, death rates in the second clinic immediately fell.

This sounds like a story about the triumph of science. And in some ways it is. Discovering the power of disinfectant is obviously hugely important.

But is also a story about a failure of communication.

Because Semmelweis was, by all accounts, a prickly character known for rubbing people up the wrong way.

Many of the doctors resented the idea that their actions may have been responsible for the babies’ deaths.

And although Semmelweis wrote a book about his findings, he was also a terrible writer.

“The book had an unwelcome response; it was criticized for poor language and unprofessional writing style,” according to an article in a medical journal.

“Semmelweis could not tolerate the criticism and suffered with bouts of depression, rage, paranoia, and forgetfulness. He ended up in a mental asylum and died in 1865.”

The importance of hygiene did of course eventually become widely known. But how many more lives might have been saved if Semmelweis had been better at getting his message across?

Bad communicators with good intentions are still very much still with us. Who can forget the failure to persuade enough people of the benefits of remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum.

Or the failure to persuade enough voters of the dangers of electing an orange lunatic as President of the United States the following year.

Perhaps lessons can be learnt from the power of distilling complex messages into simplistic soundbites (“Take Back Control”, “Make America Great Again”).

Or perhaps most things in life are more nuanced than the “wash your hands” signs that now hang over sinks throughout the world.


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