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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 01-Sep-13


Sunday 01-September-13

A Tale of Two Doctors

In the mid-nineteenth century Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who was working in Vienna, noticed that around one in six women would die of  'childbed fever' when their baby was delivered by a doctor, while far fewer died when the birth was managed by a midwife. He discovered that the dissected mother had the same white pus in them that was found in corpses and realized that doctors who had been doing post-mortems were somehow transferring something deadly.

When he told his superiors, Semmelweis came to blows about this with the conservative establishment. Rather than performing scientific experiments and gathering evidence, he gave furious lectures which gained some converts but also alienated him from many senior doctors. He returned to Budapest and proved his findings by forcing disinfection, but in doing so angered many with his arrogant attitude. When at last he wrote a book in 1860, rather than calmly giving evidence, he railed on at great length about his opponents. Eventually, he was forced out and died penniless in 1865.

In an earlier era, Englishman William Harvey doubted the old idea that the heart manufactured blood and pushed it through the body, where it was consumed. Rather than publishing these thoughts, he quietly looked further into the subject as his career progressed right up to becoming the Royal Physician to James I. During this time he worked hard on relationships with his colleagues and steadily build evidence that the heart was a pump rather than a source. He acted humbly about this idea and continued to solicit views, even confiding in the king.

He eventually published his findings in 1628, including a clever dedication to the king. Even then, there were many opponents, especially from the continent where he was not well known. To the many criticisms, he remained either silent or responded politely. By the time of his death, his findings had been fully accepted by the medical community, due in no small part to his social skills (and in direct contrast with the acerbic anger of Semmelweis). His friend, philosopher Thomas Hobbes, summed him us when he said "Harvey was the only man I know, who, conquering envy, hath established a new doctrine in his lifetime."

If you want to challenge the status quo, know that there will be many opponents who will ignore evidence and reason as they defend ideas on which they have based their reputation and made their living. So as well as the genius of discovery, you will need patience and the skills of changing minds.

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