By Mike Rainone

Let me tell you a story about a man who almost saved countless lives.

The man was Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis. In 1846, he was appointed to the Vienna General Hospital and quickly noticed a problem. 

The hospital had two maternity wards: the first clinic, which was staffed by all male doctors and medical students, and the second clinic, staffed exclusively by female midwives. Pregnant women would often beg to be admitted to the second clinic instead of the first, for good reason. 

On average, nearly 10 percent of women died in the first clinic due to puerperal fever, while in the second clinic, fewer than 4 percent died. Some women actually chose to give birth on the street rather than risk the first clinic. (A surprisingly smart choice, because such women had a lower mortality rate than those in the first clinic.)

Obviously, something was wrong, and Semmelweis set about finding it. 

The Breakthrough: From Problem to Solution

Semmelweis tested several hypotheses. In the second clinic women gave birth on their sides instead of their backs, so he had the doctors at the first clinic do the same. 

No change. 

Next he theorized the priest giving last rites in the first clinic was terrifying the women, increasing their likelihood of contracting fever. So he had the priest change his route and stop ringing his bell.

Again, no change.

Then a breakthrough came, in the form of a tragedy. One of Semmelweis’s colleagues and a good friend died after being nicked by a scalpel during a postmortem examination. An autopsy revealed that the doctor’s cause of death was similar to those of the women in the first clinic.

This was the missing link, the key difference between the two wards: autopsies. The doctors were doing autopsies, and the midwives weren’t. 

Semmelweis had at long last discovered the cause of the problem, what he termed “cadaverous particles.” What’s more, he also devised a simple, easy solution: handwashing. 

And it worked. After doctors and students began washing their hands and instruments in a chlorine solution, the maternal mortality rate of the first clinic dropped to just 1–2 percent.

Remember, though: I said Semmelweis almost saved countless lives. Unfortunately, the handwashing procedures never expanded past Semmelweis’s hospital, and just a few years later, Semmelweis was dismissed from his post. 

What went wrong? 

This is the ugly secret of innovation: It doesn’t matter whether you are right. It only matters if you can convince others that you are right. This is where Semmelweis failed.

The Breakdown: From Solution to Status Quo

Today, the germ theory of disease is commonplace knowledge. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the medical community believed disease was caused by miasma (“bad air”). Semmelweis’s idea of cadaver particles contradicted what the doctors knew, and so they rejected it.

We could easily blame the medical community for not listening to Semmelweis. But put yourself in their shoes. You’ve been working as a doctor for decades. Then this young upstart, not even thirty years old, waltzes in and says that hundreds of years of medical science is wrong. Oh, and by the way, it’s your fault all those women died, because you didn’t wash your hands. Seen from that lens, it’s understandable why the medical community rejected Semmelweis’s ideas. 

Up against a powerful status quo, Semmelweis did not communicate his ideas as effectively as he could have. He expected the results to speak for themselves, and so he did not bother addressing valid questions: Why did handwashing work? And why did it sometimes not work? What other factors might be at play? 

In a way, Semmelweis’s idea of cadaverous particles was not a well-researched theory so much as a hunch that happened to be correct. As Professor Carl Edvard Marius Levy, head of the Danish Maternity Institute at Copenhagen, wrote, “His opinions are not clear enough and his findings not exact enough to qualify as scientifically founded.” 

Over the years, in response to the criticism, Semmelweis began writing open, increasingly vitriolic letters. To one obstetrician, he wrote, “You, Herr Professor, have been a partner in this massacre.” To another he wrote, “Should you, Herr Hofrath, without having disproved my doctrine, continue to train your pupils [against it], I declare before God and the world that you are a murderer.”

Unsurprisingly, his letters did not endear him to his colleagues, nor did they succeed in convincing others to follow his handwashing procedures. 

Innovations Do Not Speak for Themselves

The conclusion of our story is a sadly ironic one. In 1865, after increasingly erratic and concerning behavior (speculated to be a result of syphilis or early-onset Alzheimer’s), Semmelweis was admitted to a mental institution. Two weeks later, due to a gangrenous wound on his hand, he died from sepsis—an infection not so different from those he had spent his career trying to prevent.

I’d like to say we’ve moved past the time of rejecting new ideas and innovations simply because they contradict the status quo. If you’ve spent any time in the corporate world, though, you know that’s not true. As a society, we are more risk-averse than ever.

This means that, as innovators, one of our most important jobs is convincing others of the need to innovate. Innovations do not speak for themselves. We must speak for them, so we don’t end up like Semmelweis.

Stay tuned for our next blog, in which we will detail how you can make the case for innovation, securing the resources you need so you don’t almost change things but actually change them. 

To keep up to date and be notified of new content, follow PCDworks on LinkedIn or follow Mike Rainone on Medium.

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