Sometimes, the way things are now seem like the only way things can be. What came before can seem backward and quaint – sometimes wrong-headed.
Once upon a time, physicians thought diseases were caused by bodily “humors” and could be cured by bloodletting. There were centuries of research before humans gained the knowledge and technology that could throw the old paradigm on its ear – and centuries of resistance.
It’s no surprise that whenever something new comes along to challenge the current order, many – maybe even most – people resist it. As Gandhi’s famous saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Consider where we are with dental mercury today. Even just a decade ago, there was limited concern about its impact on either human or environmental health. Those who begged to differ were often – and sometimes still are – labeled quacks. Yet about half of American dentists no longer place amalgam fillings. Whole countries have phased them out, and the Minamata Convention on Mercury pushes the rest of the world closer to that ideal. The EPA has proposed a new rule to drastically reduce mercury pollution from dental clinics.
Yes, there are still plenty of dental professionals who insist against evidence that mercury is perfectly safe when implanted in living human tissue, despite being a potent neurotoxin that’s considered a biohazard everywhere else. But that we are witnessing change is a sign that facts are winning out – as facts tend to do.
Consider the life of Ignaz Semmelweis. This 19th century Hungarian physician worked in a teaching hospital in Vienna, where he noticed that the death rate was much higher in one of the two obstetrics clinics there. The only other difference between them was that one taught medical students while the other taught midwives. Yet the medical students lost many more patients to puerperal fever – an infection contracted during or after childbirth or miscarriage.
After much investigation, Semmelweis finally found the answer: Between patients, the medical students would spend time working with cadavers in the morgue. They didn’t wash their hands before going back to work with the living.
Decades before Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, Semmelweis deduced that the medical students were transferring some substance from the corpses that infected the expectant mothers upstairs.
So the doctor made it policy that the students wash their hands thoroughly with a solution of chlorinated lime before treating patients after autopsy work. Lo and behold, the death rate in the first clinic dropped.
Still, many colleagues refused to believe. Not only was there no medical paradigm that could explain the relationship between hand-washing and death rates; some doctors took offense at its implication that they were somehow unclean themselves. As one American obstetrician put it, “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.”
Semmelweis eventually suffered a mental breakdown. He died in an asylum. He was not yet 50 years old.
Today, he’s honored as a critical figure in medical disinfection. He’s also honored in the name given to the knee-jerk tendency to reject new evidence that conflicts with current ideas or knowledge: the Semmelweis reflex.
It’s the same tendency we’ve seen with respect to mercury amalgam, root canal toxicity, cavitations, occlusion and whole body health, and more. But as evidence continues to mount and we move further away from the reductionist Western medical model to the more systems-based approach that continues to emerge, we will continue to see change.
And Semmelweis’s legacy with respect to disinfection continues, as well. In our own practice today, we go to great lengths to ensure patient and staff safety through strict sterilization practices – something you can read about in the latest addition to our website…