Elizabeth Harmer Dionne | The Semmelweis Reflex

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Elizabeth Harmer Dionne, a retired attorney and mother of four, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Boston College.  You can read her previous post The Economics of Motherhood here. 

In 1847, Dr. Ignac P. Semmelweis instructed his Viennese medical students to wash their hands after assisting in childbirth.  His advice preceded Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, but Semmelweis had a hunch that this simple procedure would prevent the spread of puerperal fever, which killed up to 35% of women who delivered their babies in hospitals.

Semmelweis saved thousands of women’s lives, simply by washing his hands, but his colleagues mocked him and ignored his results.  He died prematurely in an insane asylum, a victim of the depression that followed the rejection of his life-saving idea and his despair over the needless deaths of countless women.  The so-called “Semmelweis Reflex”—a tendency to reject new information that challenges established paradigms—is named after him, a dubious honor.


Dr. Semmelweis’s history haunts me, because of its horrible irony.  Semmelweis’s dream was to save women in hospital maternity wards.  Because his colleagues killed his dream, women died.  (One of the most famous victims of puerperal fever is Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died from the disease in 1797.)

Few of us will have the life-saving insights of Semmelweis, and few of us will face similar hostility to our dreams.  However, each of us may face the death of small dreams.  Over a lifetime, these little deaths can accumulate, becoming a poignant whole—a life spent observing elusive rainbows rather than finding (or creating) our own small pot of gold.

Source: istockphoto

Dream killers come in many forms.  Mockery can be a dream killer.  A high school senior once asked me, the lone sophomore in an AP music theory class, where I wanted to attend college.  “Harvard!” I blurted out.  She snorted and replied, “Nobody goes there!”  Well, obviously some people did, and I wanted to be one of them.  I ignored her derision and forged ahead.

Limited vision is another dream killer.  My high school guidance counselor’s observation was even less helpful:  “Why go out-of-state for school?  We have good schools here!”  I ultimately concluded that Harvard wasn’t for me, but the dream of attending a prestigious school fueled the hard work and determination that secured my admission to Wellesley College, a platform for other dreams.

My teen-aged daughter wants to be a pediatric surgeon, a dream she has nurtured through multiple summers of dissection camp.  (Surgery is her dream, definitely not mine—I merely write the checks!)  She still vividly remembers the orthopedists at Children’s Hospital Boston who set her broken arm when she was two.  That experience gave birth to a dream that she could help children in the same way.

Source:  istockphoto

An insidious dream-killer is to impose your dream on someone else.  My daughter’s dream-killer was a “teacher” who suggested that she would not complete medical school if she had a baby.  (I am deliberately not identifying this woman’s place within the so-called “mommy wars,” as either extreme can kill a dream.)  I reminded my worried daughter about my own experience:  Pursuing both motherhood and a profession is difficult but also tremendously rewarding.  I have confidence in her dreams and her ability to achieve them.

There is no check-list for a worthwhile dream.  On the contrary, I am arguing that no one can establish the content of another’s dream.  Each woman (or man) must do the hard work of understanding where talent, vision, desire, values, determination, and circumstance intersect in her particular life.  There she will find her dream.

One of my most important tasks as a parent is to nurture my children’s dreams (and to restrain my impulse to turn them into versions of “mini me”).  My son probably will not become both a major league pitcher and switch-hitter, but life will teach him that, soon enough.  So my husband enthusiastically practices with him during evenings and weekends, and I dutifully shuttle him around to practices and games.  Because of his dream, he is learning lessons about determination, discipline, and hard work, and he is having a splendid time in the process.  Pursuing dreams with joyous abandon can be fun.

Source:  istockphoto

My conclusion from all of this?  Avoid the Semmelweis Reflex.  Don’t apply it to yourself or others.  Don’t allow others to apply it to you.  Life will tell you soon enough whether or not your dream is fool’s gold.  In the meantime, the journey of following your rainbow can be the ultimate affirmation of your life.


Had you ever heard of the Semmelweise reflex before reading this post?  I hadn't.  Has there been a time when someone suggested that you pursue a dream — but because this suggestion “challenged your your (negative) paradigm about yourself”, you rejected their suggestion?

Have you ever had an idea that you knew was right — that challenged consensus thinking — but was rejected, and you consequently found yourself despondent?  Consider again Brooksley Born's experience.

Knowing about the Semmelweis reflex, what can we do to give life to the dreams of our loved ones, and to ourselves?

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