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“Negotiating Truth” – Semmelweis and the Role of Emotions in Public Policy

Anna Durnova
Anna Durnova

by Anna P. Durnová, Ph.D., Hertha-Firnberg Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science University of Vienna

Emotions are at the very core of a myriad of scientific and political disputes. Just take this famous, provocative accusation by Viennese gynaecologist Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis about his fellow physician:

“I declare before God that you are a murderer! The history about ‘childbed fever’ would not be too unfair if it remembers you as a medical Nero.”

In 1846, Semmelweis claimed that “childbed fever,” a disease that afflicted many women giving birth in hospitals, may actually result from doctors not disinfecting their hands before assisting in birthing. Since this occurred in the pre-germ theory era, his thesis grew into a vicious dispute over the duty of hand disinfection as a measure against childbed fever, over which he failed to prevail in his lifetime. Today, the story of Semmelweis is a quintessential example of a scientist who was vilified in life because of his controversial and contentious stand but celebrated in later times (as I analyse in Durnova 2015).

What does this have to do with politics?

I analyse Semmelweis’ case as a case for public policy. Although hand washing is today understood as an effective, simple, and rapid measure to reduce the transmission of germs, and has been integrated into public health agendas all over the world, in his day Semmelweis failed to communicate its necessity: he could not explain the link between doctors’ hands and childbed fever, and, moreover, his thesis was Continue reading “Negotiating Truth” – Semmelweis and the Role of Emotions in Public Policy