Standing Alone

“It's easy to stand in the crowd but it takes courage to stand alone.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Scientists, charged with the mission of following the evidence wherever it leads, are ironically often too well-entrenched in their own status and a priori beliefs to accept it. In other words, the established scientific community that devotes years and lifetimes doing the work that inspires scientific revolutions, may also be the last to accept these very same revolutions.

Rocket Girls know when to stand alone.

In order to address the epidemic of infanticide among illegitimate children in nineteenth century Europe, free maternity clinics were established to care for underprivileged women and their infants. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician serving in a “chief resident” capacity at the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, worked at one of these maternity clinics in his off hours.

He found that the four percent mortality rate due to puerperal fever, a form of sepsis of the genital tract, of women in the poor clinic was considerably lower than the ten percent mortality rate at Vienna General Hospital. This discrepancy was so well known, that some women preferred to give birth in the street rather than be admitted to the latter, more established, hospital.

Dr. Semmelweis investigated the possible causes of these discrepant events, one by one, following the evidence wherever it lead. He eliminated differences in religious practices, overcrowding – because the clinic was far more overcrowded than the hospital -- and climate, as the two institutions were close to each other. The only difference he could find was that the hospital trained medical students, whereas the clinic trained midwives, only.

When his friend Jakob Kolletschka died in 1847 after being accidentally poked by a student’s scalpel during an autopsy, Semmelweis discovered a pathology in his friend similar to that of the women who were dying from puerperal fever.

Semmelweis proposed a connection between working with cadavers and then attending to childbirths, without washing in-between, and spent the remaining years of his life, canvasing for antiseptic medical procedures. The subsequent scorn he received from the medical establishment eventually landed him in an insane asylum and early death. Germ theory wouldn’t catch on until later that century, ushered in by the work of Louis Pasteur.

As physicist Maxwell Planck wrote in his autobiography, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” In the end then, good science does triumph over the status quo, even if the status quo has to die off first. Still, scientists must be willing to “follow the evidence wherever it leads,” though it may lead to the occasional post-operational death, bruised ego, or ulcer in its wake.

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