Last Friday, Google dedicated their home page to a little known but inspirational doctor who made a life saving discovery. Dr Ignaz Semmelweis was an obstetrician in 19th century Austria. At that time, puerperal fever was killing 13 per cent of the women who gave birth in his Vienna hospital. A close friend of Semmelweis died from an infection after accidentally cutting himself with a knife while performing an autopsy. Semmelweis found that his friend died of symptoms similar to the women who died of puerperal fever.
The physician began to suspect that the doctors themselves were bringing the infection to the mothers – he noticed that doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He began to make a connection that would not be confirmed for another decade: that germs cause disease.
That’s when Semmelweis proposed a bold experiment: that doctors and nurses wash their hands before treating their patients.
His colleagues were indignant at Semmelweis’ hypothesis. How dare this young nobody doctor make such a suggestion to physicians far more experienced and knowledgeable! But Doctor Semmelweis stubbornly pushed and pushed. Some doctors ridiculed Semmelweis by scrubbing their hands with great histrionics, making fun of Semmelweis’ simplistic solution.
But the dying stopped. Doctor Semmelweis’ simple suggestion, now standard procedure in all hospitals, saved millions of lives.
Yet, rather than being hailed for his discovery, Dr Semmelweis continued to be deeply resented and excoriated. Dr Semmelweis, in turn, publicly denounced the medical establishment for their irresponsibility and indifference to the deaths of their poor patients. He was eventually forced out of the hospital. In his later years he suffered a series of breakdowns and his behavior became more and more erratic. He died in an insane asylum in 1865.
Seven years ago I preached a sermon about Dr Semmelweis, because his story resonated with the Sunday gospel reading (Luke 13:31-35.) In this passage, Jesus laments the treatment of prophets, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Dr Semmelweis, whose innovation saved many lives, was ridiculed and rejected. How, I wondered, could this happen?
There appears to be a blindness in human nature that keeps us from seeing objectively the very thing that helps us. My sermon was an attempt to understand why Jesus, who healed the sick, raised the dead and preached a message of love and mercy, was rejected by the authorities.
I identified the cause of the problem as an absence of love: by which I mean the love which gives understanding, compassion, and growth. This absence leads to the establishment of wrong priorities, such as primacy of the letter of the law over acts of mercy. I would now throw into the mix some old fashioned sins, like jealousy and envy, to explain the phenomena. The cause of blindness is therefore ourselves and our self importance. Something can’t be true if it makes me look small!
The answer is to place love at the top of your priorities, above wealth, status and power. In my sermon I quoted John Henry Newman, who wrote: “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” That is a good description of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The agent of change is love, and by love we can be changed day by day into the likeness of Christ.
My sermon on Dr Semmelweis had an unexpected outcome. I was preaching in an unfamiliar country church in Sussex, England, but in the congregation there was someone who had made a study of the life of Semmelweis. His name was Patrick Jenkins, originally from Texas, and he was delighted to hear the doctor mentioned in a sermon.
Afterwards we struck up a friendship and would often meet to shoot the breeze and pray together. One day he shared a prayer that, he said, had come to him at Ingrams Farm in Hardham, West Sussex, in Spring 2008. It was a striking and original prayer, and I asked him to write it down for me. I share it with you now:
Let the Light of Jesus Christ illuminate all the dark crevices
Let the warmth of the Holy Spirit reclaim the land
and rise through the feet of the unredeemed
Let the Slaves see their shackles and ask for release
Let the Grace of God melt those unnatural bonds
I hope you are all making the best of it in this difficult time. As people who walk in the light of Christ we are not bound by fear or a prey to despair, but always traveling in hope, for God is surely with us, and will be with us to the end of the ages. Amen.
With love and prayers