What Friends Know

Feb 28, 2022

“Knowledge is Power!” The words rang across the stage.

“It’s not enough to say what we know,” Maria said to her husband Ignaz, “we need to help others to know too.”[1]

In 1844 Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, had through single-minded, persistent analysis, worked out that women were dying of infection after giving birth (in childbed fever) because doctors did not at the time wash their hands between dissecting corpses and attending women in labour.

So the doctors and students were transferring infection from the dead to the living women – and women were dying of childbed fever in their hundreds. Some sources put the death rate at an appalling 25-30%.

Ignaz Semmelweis had gathered good evidence: when his procedure of washing hands was followed, the mortality rates in the maternity wards dropped from 18% to 1%, and in March and August of 1848 no woman died in childbirth in his division[2].

Despite this, Dr. Semmelweis’s advice was not adopted by the medical profession for more than 40 years. His fellow doctors largely refused to take on board his recommendations and he was eventually repudiated by the medical profession in Vienna and ended up being committed to a mental asylum – where he died, possibly (and paradoxically) from an infected wound.

Today it seems blindingly obvious to us. How many hundreds of lives could have been saved if the knowledge had been taken on board earlier?

“We have to share ideas,” Maria says in the play.

“It’s not enough for us to cross the river and then to just shout at people from the other side. We have to build a bridge for people to get across.”1

The play was superb and I found Ignaz Semmelweis’s story fascinating.

It made me think of lots of things, but not least how much we each of us know that may be helpful to others, if only we share.

I will be forever grateful to my Natural Birth Teacher, who suggested homeopathy to me when my toddler had a horrible, itchy rash that had lasted a week and was making our lives miserable.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a life-changing moment for me. At the time all I knew was that within hours of taking his remedy, my son’s rash disappeared. I have a first class degree in Chemistry, and have worked in both research and analysis, and I had no idea how this was working. But it was exceedingly clear that it was working.

So I took the scientific approach, and observed the facts. The rash had got better with homeopathy where it totally failed to do so with any of the other measures I had taken. I might not understand how this worked, but it had worked. Hooray.

I telephoned my Natural Birth Teacher and thanked her very much indeed for her invaluable suggestion. I would not have thought of using homeopathy, for the simple reason that I had no experience of it – indeed I did not even know it existed.

Her knowledge built a bridge into a new country: a whole new way of looking at health for me. And her friendship was what gave me the confidence to walk over that bridge.

So don’t underestimate the value of what you know and what you can share with your friends. Because what they don’t know can’t help them. And what you know maybe can.


If you want to learn more about Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, there is a biography of him here: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ignaz-Semmelweis

And more information here: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/ignaz-semmelweis-doctor-prescribed-hand-washing

If you are interested in learning more about the play, which received a standing ovation, you can find a review of it here: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2022/jan/27/dr-semmelweis-review-mark-rylance-bristol-old-vic

[1] The quotes cited here are not direct quotes from the play entitled “Dr Semmelweis” because the script is not publicly available at the moment. The quotes are as near as I can remember from having seen the play. The play was written by Stephen Brown and Mark Rylance and the script may be published sometime this year. Dr Semmelweis was performed at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre 20 Jan-12 Feb 2022, and was a sell-out; the run was extended by a week.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ignaz-Semmelweis

Picture credits:
Hand washing: nathan-dumlao-kDxqbAvEBwI-unsplash