The Semmelweis Reflex

Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis joined the maternal clinic of Vienna’s General Hospital in 1846. At the time, a mysterious condition was baffling doctors: up to eighteen percent of mothers were dying of childbed fever. No adequate theory yet existed to explain the condition, though one was so ridiculous as to attribute it to “mother’s shame” after being examined by male doctors.

Semmelweis had a different idea. When a friend of his died after cutting his finger during an autopsy, he noticed the presence of foreign substances he called “cadaveric particles” (germs). It was then common practice for doctors to go from conducting autopsies to delivering babies, washing their hands only with soap and water in between. Semmelweis began requiring doctors to wash their hands and instruments in a chlorine solution before proceeding to the maternal ward. Mortality rates from childbed fever immediately plummeted to just one percent.

Yet Semmelweis’s ideas were harshly criticized by the medical community. Doctors resented the implication that their hands were unclean, or that they might have been causing disease in their patients rather than curing it. Semmelweis went on to implement his practices in Hungary, saving thousands of lives, but the constant scorn he experienced eventually took a toll on his health. In 1865, he was tricked into visiting a mental institution where he was involuntarily committed. After attempting to escape, he was savagely beaten. Ironically, he died just weeks later from a gangrenous wound.

Semmelweis would later be vindicated by Louis Pasteur’s germ theory and Joseph Lister’s work on hospital sanitation. However, he was not the last doctor to be excoriated by the medical establishment. In fact, the “Semmelweis reflex” is named for him. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. defines it as:

(T)he knee-jerk reaction with which the press, the medical and scientific community, and allied financial interests greet new scientific evidence that contradicts an established scientific paradigm. The reflex can be particularly fierce in cases where new scientific information suggests that established medical practices are actually harming public health.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Moral Courage and Our Common Future, Forward to Plague of Corruption by Judy Mikovits and Kent Heckenlively

Here are some other examples Kennedy provides of the “Semmelweis reflex” in action:

In the 1979, Herbert Needleman published his findings that children with higher levels of lead in their teeth scored significantly lower on IQ tests, speech processing, and attention. The lead and oil industries quickly attacked Needleman, pressuring the EPA and the NIH to investigate him. Needleman’s career was ruined, and the field of lead research stagnated, but he was ultimately vindicated. Leaded gasoline was finally banned in 1996.

In the 1960’s, Rachel Carson exposed the dangers of the pesticide DDT, then promoted as a prophylactic against lice and malaria. The American Medical Association joined Monsanto in attacking Carson, while trade journals dismissed her as “hysterical woman.” President John F. Kennedy defied his own USDA to investigate Carson’s claims in Silent Spring, validating every one.

In the 1956, Alice Stewart published strong evidence that giving X-rays to pregnant women was causing carcinomas. She was attacked by the British medical establishment as well as the nuclear industry. Her findings were not acknowledged until twenty-five years later, when the practice was finally halted.

In 1954, Dr. Bernice Eddy warned that certain batches of the Salk polio vaccine contained residual live polio that could cause disease. The NIH dismissed her concerns, going on to infect 200,000 people with live polio, sickening 70,000, paralyzing 200, and killing 10.

Dr. Eddy also discovered that the Salk polio vaccine was contaminated with SV-40, a monkey virus known to cause cancer. In response, the NIH banned her from polio research and had Dr. Eddy reassigned. Fearing damage to the reputation of the vaccine program, the NIH refused to recall the contaminated vaccine even after Merck and Parke-Davis recalled theirs in 1961. Millions of unsuspecting Americans were infected with SV-40 in the two years that followed, to the extent that it is now part of the human genome. In 1996, the government identified SV-40 in 23% of blood specimens and 45% of sperm specimens collected from healthy adults. Six percent of children born between 1980 and 1995 were infected. SV-40 is so reliably carcinogenic, that it is used in labs to induce cancer in animals. For trying to expose these dangers, the NIH forbade Dr. Eddy from speaking publicly, held up her papers, destroyed her animals, and took away access to her labs.

In 1976, Dr. John Anthony Morris was attacked by the FDA for suggesting the swine flu vaccine was ineffective and unsafe. The government eventually halted the inoculations after 49 million doses, which resulted in 500 cases of Guillain-Barre, 200 cases of paralysis and 33 deaths. Incidence of swine flu among the vaccinated was later shown to be seven times greater than among the unvaccinated.

In 2009, Judy Mikovits and Frank Ruscetti published their findings that 67% of women afflicted with chronic fatigue syndrome tested positive for XMRV, a retrovirus that likely jumped from mice to humans as a result of contaminated vaccines. Furthermore, XMRV was found to be present in 3 to 8% of the blood supply. For this inconvenient discovery, Mikovits was pressured to retract her article, fired from her faculty job, arrested without a warrant, and held for five days without bail.

One can draw myriad conclusions from this history. Here are mine:

  1. People are loathe to admit they were wrong — especially when doing so means admitting to past harm, especially when they are invested in their identity as “experts.”
  2. Expertise is not without value, but the experts are still wrong all the time. Thus, experience and empirical data are often more valuable than credentials and theory when making decisions.
  3. Institutions tend to value self-preservation over their stated mission. This applies to medical and scientific, as well as governmental and religious authorities.
  4. Abolishing said authorities would be as misguided as trusting them blindly. Instead, we must insist upon transparency and oversight. Power should be distributed as broadly as possible — with numerous checks and balances — to guard against the corrupting force of monopoly.
  5. Corporate interests, whether industrial or pharmaceutical, hold way too much sway over our regulatory authorities. Laws should be passed to remove as many conflicts of interest as possible.
  6. Dissenting voices – “heretics” – are punished not just by religious authorities, but by scientific ones as well. This is not a recent phenomenon, as Copernicus was just as fearful of the scientific community (which still held to geo-centrism) as he was of the Church.
  7. The excuse for the persecution of heretics is always the same: “if we don’t silence or eliminate this person or group, they will spread their ‘misinformation’ at the cost of lives and/or souls.”
  8. There will always be quacks and charlatans, but better to tolerate a charlatan than silence a potential Galileo or Semmelweis. Free speech and free debate are essential in the pursuit of truth.
  9. Science is amazing, but it is also dangerous. An important question should always be, does the potential benefit of this research outweigh the costs?
  10. Wash your hands.

3 thoughts on “The Semmelweis Reflex

  1. Hi Lauren,
    Don’t be silly. Of course she has nothing
    of any empirical relevance with which to
    upholster her deeply thought and considered
    conclusion that we are sad breeds.

    Your missive impressed me. I was going to
    send you a post on Twitter about it but when
    I saw that one comment I just had to do it right
    away, right here.

    Okay, I’ll catch up with ya’ around the Twitter riots.

    Blessings to you,

    Joel Ciszewski
    Niagara Falls

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