Question Have you heard of the Semmelweis Reflex ?

Jul 2, 2020
Semmelweis Reflex has been reviewed and written about in a medical peer reviewed paper set out in Science Direct where it states

"We aim to familiarize the readers with the term that not only has a significant historical background but also grave clinical implications." See full QUOTE later below

Whatever anyones views are we are all at risk from the Semmelweis Reflex EVEN if we are 100% correct and history proves us so.

It should be noted that this condition effects most people and that Dr Semmelweis died at 47 years old of injuries he received, probably related if only indirectly to his beliefs and, around 15 days after he was taken to a hospital against his will and without any need to be there.

When we view the Semmelweis Reflex in todays context and then add to this the use of the media by all sides wishing to distort or control new or different views or technology, even from challanging views that may be valid, it becomes even more important to remain aware of the Semmelweis Reflex for your own health

There is an inbuilt bias in all professions and cultures for the vast majority to find ways to reject changes (despite adequate evidence) that go against the established beliefs. This has caused many serious problems throughout human history


"Semmelweis reflex is a human behavioral tendency to stick to preexisting beliefs and to reject fresh ideas that contradict them (despite adequate evidence).

We aim to familiarize the readers with the term that not only has a significant historical background but also grave clinical implications.

A keyword search for “Semmelweis reflex,” “Belief perseverance,” “handwashing,” and “Idea rejection” was conducted using PubMed Central, MEDLINE, and Google SCHOLAR. Literature published in paper-based journals and books was also searched. All manuscripts pertaining to these keywords were thoroughly analyzed for this review.

The first section of our paper briefs the story of Ignaz Semmelweis and brushes on the contributions of other intellectual researchers that were rebuffed initially. The discussion further explains the root cause of this dismissal, an inherent bias against uncertainty that may be at the core of our fear for new ideas. Finally, this review explores the means by which we can prevent ourselves from being a victim of rejection.

The age-old prejudice that is Semmelweis reflex is explored in this review. With careful and thorough study design, scientific rigor, and critical self-analysis of the manuscript, one can avoid being victimized by this reflex. The dual edged nature of this reflex lays unveiled when its importance is highlighted in the prematurely accepted medical failures. Understanding that any new idea goes through the grill of being critically analyzed and perceived encourages the scientist to hold on to the original thought as it may rather be practice changing.

Names like: Van Gogh, Galileo, Dickinson, Tesla, and Edgar Allen Poe come to mind. But what all these names also have in common is that they belong to those who found no fame in life, but only in death. We may remember them as triumphant revolutionaries, but their lives were filled with more defeats than victories and their “great works” were their unhealthy obsessions.

With the passing of time, their passions were validated, but to those apart of their lives; these works were the mad ramblings and scribblings of a lost son or daughter.

Their defeats came to them at the hands of a common human reaction coined the Semmelweis Reflex,” which describes the human instinct to adamantly deny evidence of new ideas that contradict the popular established norms or paradigms.

The earth is flat. Animals don’t evolve. Your art sucks.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who gives the reflex its name, was a Hungarian physician in the mid 1800s and may just be the reason you are alive today.

If you ever wondered who first had the idea for hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, or disinfectant, well that was Semmelweis. Basically this guy invented hand washing.

Handwash Semmelweis

As the father of antiseptic science, he was the first to hypothesize that disease could be spread through touch via “infectious material” on the skin. This might seem like a simple idea to us now, but only 200 years ago people believed disease came from bad smells or an imbalance of bodily fluids. Mankind had no idea that germs even existed or how sickness was transmitted.

Dr. Semmelweis came to this revolutionary discovery by making a astute observation at the hospital in which he worked. This hospital, like many others in those days, had both a large maternity ward and a morgue. Thus, due to understaffing and ignorance, doctors would routinely handle both patients and cadavers in the same day without washing their hands.

Some of these doctors at Semmelweis’s hospital cut themselves while handling the dead bodies and contracted a feverish disease; a very similar disease was also found in many mothers in the maternity ward after giving birth. Semmelweis had a hunch that these two diseases were in fact the same.

The disease is now called Puerperal Fever but back then it was referred to as childbed fever.

Through trial and error, Dr. Semmelweis was able to come up with a chlorinated lime solution that cleaned the skin of any “particles” causing disease. He did this without any knowledge that germs existed or any understanding of why his methods worked.

It would not be until after Semmelweis’s death that Louis Pasteur’s “Germ Theory” would prove that micro-organisms like bacteria are the culprits of this transmission.

wash hands

Nevertheless, Dr. Semmelweis did notice that if he added a hand washing step in between the morgue and maternity ward, he could essentially eliminate a disease that was previously killing almost 20% of his post pregnancy patients.

This was a incredible feat! Seriously, the man simply told doctors to wash their hands and he saved hundreds of lives a year.

What was next? The good Doctor wanted to share this discovery with the world. So he raced all over Europe to different hospitals to give talks and published papers on his discovery. In his mind the evidence was too powerful to ignore and he was destined to be the golden boy of 1800’s medicine.

But instead he found nothing but rejection and resentment from doctors across the world who were insulted that Semmelweis was implying that they were the reason for their patients sickness.

Semmelweis was essentially telling physicians that they had been responsible for hundreds of patients deaths…

One very skeptical physician even rebuked,

“It seems improbable that enough infective matter or vapor could be secluded around the fingernails to kill a patient.” –Carl Edvard Marius Levy

And so, instead of glorious ascension, Ignaz Semmelweis fell into depression, mental instability and was eventually admitted against his will into a mental institution. There he ironically died of an infection or “blood poisoning” contracted after the guards gave him a especially bad beating leading to open wounds.

Semmelweis coin

Semmelweis died thinking himself a failure.

He had no clue that his ideas would go on to inspire Pasteur’s “Germ Theory” of disease and give us the knowledge needed to combat disease in a way unseen in human history. He would then be remembered as the “father of Antiseptic Science” and have hospitals and universities named after him. He would receive more praise in death than any humble Hungarian Physician would expect in a lifetime.

But does that change the story for Semmelweis? Does that make his decent into insanity and tragedy any less painful for him? No, Semmelweis is long gone and any adulation thrown his way in unheard from the grave.

Don’t get me wrong, it is great to honor our histories heroes so that people can remember the sacrifices made for progress. However; what have we missed out on from the time lost ignoring these revolutionaries or driving them to early graves?

Instead of being reactive to the Semmelweis’s of the world and giving them praise once they are gone; perhaps the answer is to fight against this “Semmelweis Reflex” everyday so that we wont miss out on the next great revolutionaries.

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Jul 2, 2020
That's a very interesting idea. I had no clue there was a whole reflex for willful ignorance.
In the fullness of time many of our current beliefs and ways of doing things will almost certainly be seen to be “Semmelweis Reflexes”.

Who knows we may find out many years from now that a parallel universe or universes exist as Stephen Hawking had envisaged in 2018.

Most people consider such parallel universe ideas as not worth considering, however they could be as fundamentally life saving for humanity and the understanding of why we do or do not cause things to happen to ourselves, as Drs failure to hand wash in the 1800s was to allowing known diseases to be spread to patients

A cultural and professional bias exists generally against new ideas. After Newton all was supposed to be known and the same has been said by many succeeding generations - ie that humans had reached a maximum peak of understanding or technology.

When people believed the world was flat or the sun went round the earth and refused to look at the evidence were they willfully ignorant ? Probably.

When Drs refused to accept the clear statistical evidence presented by Dr Semmelweis that hand washing saved lives in the maternity ward they were almost certainly willfully ignorant. Drs also believed bloodletting and mercury were good treatments but had no evidence.

The phrase the science is settled is often used today to limit difficult discussions. It has always been this way.

It was not so long ago that the idea of a man travelling faster than 40 miles an hour would cause death because you could not breath was accepted, later going faster than the speed of sound was considered to be some medical barrier that would kill a human

Today humanity is almost certainly being equally willfully ignorant and ignoring new or even old disruptive ideas.

Unless humans have evolved to a level at which we really know what science is settled, our existing limited beliefs and knowledge of what we think we know will still be holding us back on a range of matters such as - black holes, quantum entanglement, travel faster than the speed of light, anti-gravity devices, parallel universes or even something as simple as the way aircraft or spacecraft could be better designed and propelled.

Mar 4, 2020
I think that this characteristic comes with institutionalization. Pride, position, reputation and institutional competency is at stake. No one likes to hear they've been wrong. Imagine working on something in earnest for 40-50 years and finding out it's meaningless.
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Mar 4, 2020
Can you imagine a discovery.....strike that.....let's say next Tuesday, an off world ALIEN race arrives and makes first contact. Bearing gifts of knowledge and we can all live to 250 now. And one of those gifts was advanced physics. For interstellar travel. It is revealed that all we thought about light, mass and gravity was all wrong. How would academia react? How would government react? How would you react?

Would we first deny it? Changing belief into non-belief....and changing non-belief into belief, is shocking. A hold your horses moment.