The Power of BELIEFS | The INCREDIBLE Story of Hand-Washing

Beliefs are the most powerful human invention ever created.
They are responsible for the collapse of civilizations, for taking us to the
moon, and for shaping our personal reality.


This video is about the power of beliefs and how one in
particular was responsible for killing thousands. This is the story of Ignaz Semmelweis and hand-washing.

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Ignaz Semmelweis and hand-washing

It was 1846 and more than 100 years had passed since the Enlightenment movement started taking over the intellectual space. Fantastic and religious beliefs were being displaced by reason as the primary way of knowing and the scientific method started to take over the scene. This new mindset was becoming more and more popular in different fields like physics, math, astronomy and, of course, medicine.

Doctors like Semmelweis were no longer thinking of illness as an imbalance caused by bad air or evil spirits. Instead, they looked to anatomy. Autopsies became more and more common, and doctors paid increasingly more attention to data rather than superstitious beliefs as a means to reach conclusions.

When Dr. Semmelweis took on a new job in the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Viena, he noticed that something strange was happening: the number of women in maternity wards dying from puerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever – was way higher than usual, so he set up to find the reason behind it.

By analyzing the numbers, he realized that women in the ward staffed by male doctors and medical students were dying from childbed fever at a rate almost five times higher than the women residing at a different ward staffed by female midwives exclusively. But… why?

Investigating the Differences in Death Rates

Semmelweis went through the differences between the two wards and started ruling out ideas.

Right away he discovered a big difference between the two clinics.

In the midwives’ clinic, women gave birth on their sides while on the men’s clinic, women gave birth on their backs. So, he had women in the doctors’ clinic give birth on their sides but the change had no effect.

Then, he noticed that whenever someone on the ward died of childbed fever, a priest would walk slowly through the doctors’ clinic past the women’s beds with an attendant ringing a bell. This time he suspected that the priest and the bell ringing terrified the already debilitated women so much that they developed a fever, got sick and died.

In consequence, Semmelweis had the priest change his route and ditch the bell. But again, no change was perceived.

Tired of the constant trial and error, he decided to take some vacations and go to Venice with the intent of clearing his head up and relax (at least a bit).

When he came back, he got the news that a good friend of his, a pathologist, had died from an illness he caught after doing an autopsy.

Unrooting Why His Friend Died

Semmelweis investigated his friend’s symptoms and realized he died from the same thing as the women he had autopsied. Something clicked in his mind: Childbed fever wasn’t something only women in childbirth suffered. It was something other people in the hospital could get sick from as well.

This was an advancement but still, it didn’t explain the reason behind the differences in death rates between the two wards. He was close but not there yet.

With this newly discovered piece of information, he kept the problem in his mind for days and weeks, until a flash of insight hit him:

The big difference between the men’s ward and the midwives’ ward was that the doctors performed autopsies on a daily basis while the midwives weren’t.

The final piece of the puzzle finally fell in its place.

Semmelweis hypothesizes that there were cadaverous particles that doctors were getting on their hands when they dissected the dead bodies. And when they delivered the babies, these little pieces of corpse would get inside the women who developed the disease and die.

To contextualize the genius of his insight, science in 1846 was clueless about the existence of particles, bacteria, viruses and how illnesses truly worked and spread from one organism to the other.

So, if his conclusions were correct, the only way to decrease the number of women dying was to eliminate the dangerous particles from the doctors’ hands. He ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments not just with soap but with a chlorine solution right away (which by the way, is one of the best disinfectants there is).

Nowadays, handwashing is an essential practice in hospitals and homes that is proven to prevent the spread of diseases and reduce the chances of infections, but this was not even suspected in the eighteen hundred.

So when the theory was taken into practice, the rate of mothers dying fell dramatically.

Logically, everyone was so very happy with Semmelweis discovery. He finally solved the riddle, and who knows how many lives he will save from then on, right?

Well… Not really.

How Doctors Received Semmelweis Discovery and Washing Hands

Doctors were upset because Semmelweis’ hypothesis made it look like they were the ones giving childbed fever to the women. Also, the existence of tiny living beings that were responsible for carrying the disease went against the established medical paradigm and belief structure. Not everyone was in the Enlightenment wagon just yet.

In time, doctors gave up hand washing and Semmelweis lost his job.

Despite his initial failure, he kept trying to convince other hospitals to implement handwashing but, unfortunately, to no avail. No one was listening, the medical community was still clinging to their unfounded beliefs and thousands of mothers kept on dying.

Time went by and the infamous doctor got angrier and eventually strange. Finally, in 1865, when he was just 47 years old, he was committed to a mental asylum where he was probably beaten regularly. After a few months of staying there, he died of sepsis – an infection in the bloodstream. Ironically, a very similar disease that this courageous doctor fought so hard to prevent in his previous years.

Even though this story didn’t have a happy ending, it’s a clear example of the power of beliefs and its limiting nature – in this case, the belief that the particles which Semmelweis hypothesized weren’t real and that diseases were caused by evil spirits and curses. Just a single one can have huge repercussions in our personal lives and society as a whole.

Question Your Beliefs

So, my question for you – as well as for me – is:

  • How many beliefs do we have that might not be true at all? Even though people 500 years ago were sure that the Earth was flat, we know better. But nothing prevents us from falling into a similar trap.
  • Are we 100% sure that the ones we have are based on reason and evidence or are they wishful thinking?
  • Are we – right in this moment – hold beliefs that keep us stuck personally, professionally and as society?

    • Do we believe that talent and success, for example, are traits we are born with or do we hold them as something that can be worked on and improved?
    • Are we confident that the way you do your work is the best way possible or you just learned it that way and never questioned it?

If you start asking these types of questions, you’ll perhaps realize that most of what you held as true was nothing more than a belief that was limiting you in some way or another.

By adhering to the principle of honesty, reason, evidence, and discovery and practicing them daily, we can transform our lives, work, and world. Just as the Semmelweis story taught us, what appears to be true doesn’t necessarily need to be, and that most beliefs hold us back, separating us from genuine change and, ultimately the truth.

Adopting a mindset of discovery and questioning will make life much more interesting, open up the doors of freedom from imposed assumptions, and true personal transformation possible. So, be brave, go against your minds and society’s status quo, and question EVERYTHING.

This is Juan Cruz from Inerize! If you liked this article!

See you soon!

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