Ivor Tymchak [ 6 MAR 2017 | Storytelling | 5:42 ] You often see this legend “Knowledge is Power” above library doorways and such like. But it’s not true.
Knowledge is not power.
The application of knowledge is power.
This is Ignaz Semmelweiss. It’s the 1840s and he’s a director of Vienna General Hospital. It’s a teaching hospital – so it takes in poor patients, often prostitutes who become pregnant.
So it has a maternity wing – which is divided into two wards.
One is run by full-time midwives and the other by doctors and their students. But such is the reputation of one of the wards that some of the women would prefer to give birth in the street than enter its doors.
The one they fear is the one run by doctors
It has a death rate of up to five times higher than the one run by midwives.
And Semmelweiss is puzzled by this huge discrepancy and he’s determined to find out why. He’s presented with an almost perfect scientific experiment.
He’s got a control group and a variable.
So it starts to make changes in the doctors ward. He noticed he is that they use a different position with the women to give birth in the one that’s used in the midwives.
So he instructs them to copy the midwives.
No change in the data.
He noticed that a priest rings his bell in the doctor’s ward and doesn’t in the midwives ward, so he instructs the priest not to ring his bell at all.
No change in the data.
Now I need to mention that, at this time, disease was thought of as being caused by miasma – bad air – evidence-based medicine was only just on the cusp of being developed.
And then one day Semmelweiss’s friend dies at the hospital, after accidentally being cut by one of the students during an autopsy of the dead women.
And his friend dies with exactly the same symptoms as the women who die in the hospital.
And this makes him think that the disease might be communicable.
So he studies the routine of the doctors.
Typically they would perform autopsies in the morning — barehanded, and then they were going to the ward to help deliver babies and examining pregnant women — barehanded.
And this made him think that maybe cadaverous particles of some kind might be being transmitted from the dead women to the live women.
So if he instituted a regime of hand washing. It might interfere with the transmission.
Now, as luck would have it, he chose a chlorinated lime solution.
He chose chlorine largely due to its property of being able to dispel the smell of putrefying flesh.
Now chlorine is one of the best antiseptics we have.
And so when he instituted this regime the results were dramatic.
The death rate plummeted.
But this is where Semmelweis started to go wrong, because firstly he had no explanation as to why this technique was working.
And secondly he was a terrible communicator.
He was brusque and he was reluctant to give presentations about his findings and he wouldn’t publish papers with his data.
If anyone questioned the data, he just got angry with them.
And he wrote strongly worded letters, shall we say, to a lot of the administrators in the hospital.
These were people who made decisions and he upset them.
And he upset the doctors.
So when various political changes occurred at that time Semmelweis lost his job.
And as soon as he left the hospital the doctors abandoned the hand washing technique and reverted back to their previous habits.
And of course the death-rate returned to its former level.
Can you imagine that?
The doctors abandoned the technique that they knew saved lives.
That tells us that people are irrational.
That they don’t just look at the data and think, “yes, I have to follow that and then there’s the answer.”
The data isn’t enough.
You have to attach an emotional story to the data so that people will act on it.
You have to tell stories.
So if Semmelweiss were a better communicator, he would have worked with the doctors and said, “look this is important discovery, work with me – we might be making history”.
Or if he had said, “imagine it was your daughter in the ward giving birth, you’d want to give them every chance of survival, wouldn’t you?”.
But he didn’t.
And poor Semmelweis went mad and was committed to a mental asylum.
He tried to escape, the story goes, and in his capture he sustained an injury which got infected.
Eventually he died of sepsis – the very thing that he was obsessed with all his life.
So it’s ironic that his life story provides a brilliant example of why you should tell stories are not data.