Ponderings by Doug

“Today’s problems are often the result of yesterday’s solutions.”

I’m not going to say much about this, because I’m looking in my own life and I see it is true. I look around the church. Yep, true there. I look at the roads in Louisiana, true there also. There is not a place where this aphorism breaks down. Cross-stitch this saying and hang it in your meeting room or above your mantle. It is the catalyst for understanding resistance to adaptive change. When you don’t understand the nature of your problem, your thinking (confirmation bias) traps you. You can’t clearly see problems or solutions.

This is the story of a man whose solution could have saved a lot of lives and spared countless numbers of women and newborns’ feverish and agonizing deaths.

You’ll notice I said, “could have.”

The year was 1846, and our would-be hero was a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis.

Semmelweis considered scientific inquiry part of his mission as a physician. 

Doctors like Semmelweis were no longer thinking of illness as an imbalance caused by bad air or evil spirits. They looked instead to anatomy. Autopsies became more common, and doctors got interested in numbers and collecting data.

The young Dr. Semmelweis was no exception. When he showed up for his new job in the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Vienna, he started collecting some data of his own. Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying from puerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever.

He studied two maternity wards in the hospital. One was staffed by all male doctors and medical students, and the other was staffed by female midwives. And he counted the number of deaths on each ward. When Semmelweis crunched the numbers, he discovered that women in the clinic staffed by doctors and medical students died at a rate nearly five times higher than women in the midwives’ clinic.

But why?

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.

The big difference between the doctors’ ward and the midwives’ ward is that the doctors were performing autopsies and the midwives weren’t.

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.

If Semmelweis’ hypothesis was correct, getting rid of those cadaverous particles should cut down on the death rate from childbed fever.

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.

People laughed at Semmelweis and his hypothesis. He made an important discovery. But you see when you are living out of “problems caused by yesterday’s solutions” you refuse to see the way “out of the box.” You often keep making the same decisions that caused the problem in the first place.

Jesus said, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

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