Once upon a time it was controversial to suggest that doctors should wash their hands. The Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis was the first to advocate for the need for this. It did not end well.
So Semmelweis hypothesized that there were cadaverous particles, little pieces of corpse, that students were getting on their hands from the cadavers they dissected. And when they delivered the babies, these particles would get inside the women who would develop the disease and die.
If Semmelweis’ hypothesis was correct, getting rid of those cadaverous particles should cut down on the death rate from childbed fever.
So he ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments not just with soap but with a chlorine solution. Chlorine, as we know today, is about the best disinfectant there is. Semmelweis didn’t know anything about germs. He chose the chlorine because he thought it would be the best way to get rid of any smell left behind by those little bits of corpse.
And when he imposed this, the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically.
What Semmelweis had discovered is something that still holds true today: Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay.
You’d think everyone would be thrilled. Semmelweis had solved the problem! But they weren’t thrilled.
For one thing, doctors were upset because Semmelweis’ hypothesis made it look like they were the ones giving childbed fever to the women.
And Semmelweis was not very tactful. He publicly berated people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies.
Eventually the doctors gave up the chlorine hand-washing, and Semmelweis — he lost his job.
Semmelweis kept trying to convince doctors in other parts of Europe to wash with chlorine, but no one would listen to him.
The iconoclast in me would like to see a film in the point of view of someone fighting for a horrible cause, turning the idea of film as an empathy machine around in order to make the audience see the perspective of someone who screws up terribly. This one would probably work better from the perspective of Semmelweis as the traditional underdog, fighting for a noble cause but failing terribly. It’s useful as a reminder to people to not be like his critics who ended up on the wrong side of history.