Washing Our Hands of Faulty Perceptions

hand washing[originally published in KCN, December 2014]

I stood at the clinical white sink and depressed the pedal with my right foot.  Hot water streamed from the spigot and hit my hands.  I began scrubbing.  Three minutes to be exact — all the way up to the elbows.  I was being watched.  This is the protocol here at the hospital where my newborn is currently receiving care.

As I settled into a comfortable washing rhythm I began thinking about how this very procedure — washing hands — was once scoffed and ridiculed.  And, yet, now it is completely accepted.  It’s common sense.  And in this case, required.  Dr. Semmelweis would have been proud.

Too bad he never got the accolades he deserved during his lifetime.  In fact, he got quite the opposite.

It was during the mid-nineteenth century that Hungarian obstetrician, Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, who oversaw two teaching obstetric clinics in an Austrian hospital, couldn’t help but notice that “Clinic Number One” had a substantially higher death rate from an affliction known as childbed fever than did “Clinic Number Two” — more than four times higher.  What’s more, this was no secret to the public.  Pregnant women were literally “begging” to be admitted to the safer, “Clinic Number Two.”  Some, to avoid being admitted to the first, opted to have their babies in the streets.  What puzzled Semmelweis even further was that women involved in “street births” rarely died from childbed fever.

“To me, it appeared logical that patients who experienced street births would become ill at least as frequently as those who delivered in the clinic. […] What protected those who delivered outside the clinic from these destructive unknown endemic influences?” pondered Semmelweis.

Being a man of science, Semmelweis attempted to deduce these destructive influences of childbed fever by evaluating the two clinics side by side.  Everything was the same except that Clinic Number One was a teaching clinic for medical students and Clinic Number Two, a teaching clinic for midwives.

Still stumped, the light bulb didn’t illuminate until his good doctor-friend (a man) unexpectedly died of childbed fever himself after being accidentally pricked by a student’s scalpel following an autopsy of a childbed fever afflicted woman.  It was then that Semmelweis postulated that perhaps the medical students were carrying “cadaverous particles” on their hands when they would come to examine and deliver their pregnant patients after having performed their morning autopsies in the next room over. Oh, by the way, midwifes were not allowed to perform such autopsies and had no contact with corpses.

Semmelweis in a moment of inspiration decided that all medical students delivering babies in his ward would wash their hands in a chlorine solution after dissecting corpses, and after each patient examination.  He chose the “bleach-like” solution primarily to neutralize the putrid smell that would emanate from the hands of his students.

The results of his change in procedure were stunning.  Prior to the hand washing, one out of every eight women giving birth in his clinic was dying of childbed fever.  After the hand washing started: the death rate plummeted immediately to less than one in a hundred!

Semmelweis published his remarkable findings.  Truly, he had stumbled across something that would change the course of medicine.  But instead of being met with applause, he was hit with insults.  The orthodox obstetricians virtually declared war on the doctor, relentlessly attacking him at every opportunity — eventually driving him to insanity.  He died without ever knowing that his views would eventually be adopted as standard protocol, and that thanks to his discoveries, childbed fever would be a disease that would virtually disappear — only to be found in the history books.

But why would the medical establishment dismiss something so obvious?  Why did they not believe in hand washing?   Because doing so would be admitting that by their own hand they were spreading the fatal infection — something they were not willing to do.

Jules Eisenbud once wrote, “Let something appeal to us and we will make sense out of it.  Let something offend us, disturb us, threaten us, and we’ll see that it doesn’t make sense.”

I guess that’s what it really boils down to:  If something works and shows merit are you willing to rearrange — even change — your philosophical construct, or do you go out of your way to demonize and derail it.

My three minutes at the scrub station were complete.  With hands clean, I was now able to hold and dote on my daughter.  And then I did what every good chiropractor-father should do:  I checked her spine and adjusted her.  Because for me, that’s right up there with washing hands.


Dr. Thomas R. Lamar is now a father of 8!  He is a chiropractor at Anchor Chiropractic (a licensed 100-Year-Lifestyle affiliate) in the Health Services Center and host of the Internet radio program SpinalColumnRadio.com. Lamar can be reached at (360) 297-8111.


source used for this article:
Ignaz Semmelweis.  Wikipedia.com.  (viewed on 03/11/2010). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignaz_Semmelweis
Lamar. Do you believe in chiropractic. SpinalColumnBlog.com. https://spinalcolumnblog.com/2010/03/19/do-you-believe-in-chiropractic/
Robbins, John.  Reclaiming our health:  exploding the medial myth and embracing the source of true healing.  HJ Kramer.  Triburon, CA.  1996


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