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Posts Tagged ‘Ignaz Semmelweis’

Discovery

“At the heart of science lies discovery which involves a change in worldview. Discovery in science is possible only in societies which accord their citizens the freedom to pursue the truth where it may lead and which therefore have respect for different paths to that truth.”

-John Polanyi, Canadian Nobel Laureate (Chemistry);
Commencement Address, McGill University,
Montreal, Canada, June 1990

In two perfect sentences, Polanyi throws abundant light on the difficulties surrounding scholarship that support the realities of the Culture of Life. There seems to be scientific data that supports both sides. How can this be? It depends on one’s understanding of how science is done, and the scientific culture in which it is done.

For most, their last formal encounter with science took place in high school, or a course in college, where the Scientific Method was taught as the only acceptable standard for discerning truth in the scientific community. As is the case with so many disciplines, that’s what one learns on the front end. For the workaday truth, one needs to stick around awhile.

The scientific community is made up of humans, not machines. We’re just as given to petty (and not-so-petty) jealousies, lust for power and glory, lust for fame and fortune as anyone else. We’re just as given to back-biting and back-stabbing as anyone else. We’re just as given to distorting the truth to fit our pre-conceived ideas as anyone else.

That’s a problem, a very big problem for a community whose training and skills make us best suited for distilling and discerning nature’s secrets.

It’s why we have codes of ethics. As the President’s Council on Bioethics said (quoted a few posts down):

“we are unable to imagine ourselves as people who could take a morally disastrous next step. We are neither wise enough nor good enough to live without clear limits.”

Still, even amongst the most ethical scientists, schools of thought on a given topic emerge and orthodoxies arise. People have much riding on those orthodoxies: grant money, publishable papers (which get more grant money), tenure, promotion, esteem, chairmanships on national boards and committees, etc. Such lucre clouds the objectivity of some of the most ethical amongst us, and often unwittingly gives rise to soft tyranny.

The history of science is fraught with tragic figures who challenged the prevailing orthodoxies of their day and were ostracized, dying broken and in obscurity only to be vindicated in death. One such figure is Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss, whose name should be spoken reverently by all pro-lifers. From the Semmelweis Society International

“Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865), also Ignác Semmelweis (born Semmelweis Ignác Fülöp), was a Hungarian physician called the “saviour of mothers” who discovered, by 1847, that the incidence of puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever could be drastically cut by use of hand washing standards in obstetrical clinics.

“While employed as assistant to the professor of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria in 1847, Semmelweis introduced hand washing with chlorinated lime solutions for interns who had performed autopsies. This immediately reduced the incidence of fatal puerperal fever from about 10 percent (range 5–30 percent) to about 1–2 percent. At the time, diseases were attributed to many different and unrelated causes. Each case was considered unique, just like a human person is unique.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

“”Semmelweis’ hypothesis, that there was only one cause, that all that mattered was cleanliness, was extreme at the time, and was largely ignored, rejected or ridiculed. He was dismissed from the hospital and harassed by the medical community in Vienna, which eventually forced him to move to Budapest.

“Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind and he was in 1865 committed to an asylum (mental institution). Semmelweis died there only 14 days later, possibly after being severely beaten by guards.

“Semmelweis’ practice only earned widespread acceptance years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease which offered a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’ findings. Semmelweis is considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures.”

Had his peers not been wedded to their pet hypotheses and been open to new ideas and hard data, how many women and children might have been saved? How much sooner might the germ theory of disease been established? We now know that Puerperal Fever is a type of ‘strep’ infection, caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.

Ideas have consequences, as does their rejection. In Part II, we’ll consider the specific application of the current rejection of Post-abortion Syndrome in the face of mounting data to the contrary.

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