You've probably never heard of him, but Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is one such individual who paid the ultimate price for the simple act of identifying why so many mothers and their children were dying at the obstetrics ward where he worked in Vienna, Austria, during the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Dr. Semmelweis was not only removed from his position and relegated as a "black sheep" within the medical field, but he actually ended up dying before his time as a direct consequence of his colleagues' indignation, which likely stemmed from jealousy.
Leading up to Dr. Semmelweis' ultimate demise, the mortality rate amongst Vienna's obstetric patients was unusually high. Not only were birthing mothers getting mysteriously ill and dying in large numbers, but so were their babies – especially when their doctors were males as opposed to females. None of the tenured doctors in the field could figure out why this was the case, and rather than try to find an answer they simply continued on with business as usual, harming and killing many in the process.
Having a young and inquiring mind, Dr. Semmelweis naturally wanted to know more, figuring that whatever he uncovered in the process would be welcomed with open arms by his more seasoned counterparts. But he couldn't have been more wrong. Dr. Semmelweis discovered that very few doctors were washing their hands in between dissecting freshly-dead corpses – it turns out that many obstetricians during that time were also morticians – and delivering babies, which subjected many of their patients, both mother and child, to deadly infections. But these doctors didn't want to hear it.
Despite conducting rigorous experiments with forward-thinking obstetric physicians who helped him prove that sanitation was the issue, Dr. Semmelweis was treated as if he was nothing more than a quack. After all, how could a young buck like Semmelweis possibly have greater insight than his fellow doctors, many of whom had been in their practice since before Semmelweis was even born? The arrogance and pride of this medical "elite" would quickly lead to Semmelweis' undoing.
"...[I]nstead of being celebrated by his colleagues for his life-saving discovery (which he repeated enough times to convince anybody with an open mind about the truth of the matter), Dr. Semmelweis was ignored, denigrated and eventually driven out of town for being impertinent enough to have pointed out that the esteemed physicians of his otherwise honorable profession had been responsible for the deaths and sicknesses of the pregnant women in their care," writes Dr. Gary G. Kohls for the Centre for Research on Globalization.
"It took many years after Semmelweis's death for medicine to recognize the importance of his discovery and to give him the posthumous honor he deserved," Dr. Kohls adds, noting that the medical profession at large didn't even recognize Semmelweis' discovery as being important until long after he had passed.
In other cases, it was actual sanctioned medical practices that turned out to be dangerously flawed, such as with the infamous legacy of blood-letting. It was once believed that by opening up patients' veins and letting out their blood that diseases would somehow escape and be purged from the body. As crazy as it might sound today, this was normal practice back in the day, and this procedure is precisely what killed our nation's first president, George Washington.
Washington's personal physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, was a well-respected and considered-to-be highly credible doctor who knew everything there was to know about the medical profession during this particular time in history. Dr. Rush was also a fervent believer in blood-letting, which is what he attempted to use as "treatment" for a serious health condition that had been afflicting Washington at the time.
Because he was considered to be an "expert," nobody bothered to question Dr. Rush's protocol, even though it would ultimately result in Washington's early death. Even so, Dr. Rush would go on to be given the title of the "Father of American Psychiatry," and his likeness remains a prominent symbol of the American Psychiatry Association.
Fast-forward to today and we still see the same types of things happening with people like Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose controversial discoveries about the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella have called into question the safety of vaccines at large. The medical profession can't stand Dr. Wakefield or his work, and has done nothing but attempt to tarnish his name both here and abroad – all but ruining his career, were it not for the existence of the internet today to set the record straight (at least for those who are interested in finding truth there).
"Dr. Wakefield and his 11 co-authors in the research group weren't really trying to make the point that the new syndrome they were researching was an iatrogenic (doctor-caused) disorder, but that is how many of the perpetrators understood it," adds Kohls, pointing out the similarities between Dr. Wakefield's fate and that of the late Dr. Semmelweis.
"...[B]ecause Wakefield defended the study's findings after it was peer-reviewed and then published in The Lancet (and was then celebrated by the thousands of British parents whose autistic spectrum-afflicted children had suffered similar vaccine-induced disorders), he was hounded mercilessly by the pharmaceutical giant GSK, Rupert Murdoch yellow journalism media empire (Murdoch's son sat on the board of GSK) and ultimately the Big Pharma-complicit medical establishment that combined to hound him out of his home country of England."
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