The Semmelweis Effect: Why People Reject New Creative Ideas

And how to learn to navigate it
The Semmelweis Effect: Why People Reject New Creative Ideas
Jake McNeill
July 15, 2021
5 min read
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In 1847, a young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis had a major breakthrough. He discovered that a regime of handwashing could dramatically lower deaths in hospitals. 

Unfortunately, his ideas were rejected by the medical profession and millions more died unnecessarily over the decades. 

The Semmelweis effect is real. We get trapped into paradigms that blind us to new ways of thinking. 

Semmelweis’ story is more nuanced as much of the reason that the handwashing regime did not become protocol was his fault.

Here’s what you can learn to avoid making the same mistakes. 

The Tragedy of Ignaz Semmelweis

In the 1840s, Semmelweis was a Doctor in a maternity ward in Vienna. 

Appalled by the number of deaths by Childbed fever at the hands of doctors as opposed to midwives, Ignaz was determined to find a solution.

After one of his friends cut himself with a scalpel he was using during an autopsy he too suffered the same fever and miserable death to the disease.

Ignaz learned that the passing of germs was the cause of the disease. Doctors who were doing autopsies were then helping women give birth and infecting them with unwashed hands.

When Ignaz employed a strict handwashing regime in his maternity ward the childbed fever death rate fell from 18% to 1%.

However, his professional colleagues rejected this breakthrough and considered Ignaz to be a quack. 

Ignaz’s handwashing theory went against the belief of that time. 

Doctor’s believed that it was ‘bad airs’ that spread disease and not germs from human contact. 

Hand washing made no sense to them. Additionally, the doctors were middle to upper class and considered themselves to extremely hygienic. 

Ignaz did not back up his ideas with studies or research. Had he have done so then he would have convinced the medical profession. 

Alas, it wasn’t until others built the ‘germ theory of disease’ with solid research and meticulous study that the medical profession introduced hand washing regimes into hospitals.

Ignaz’s failure to convince the medical profession led him to have a breakdown. He lost his job and tragically died in a mental institution aged just 47. 

Cancer Breakthroughs

Compare this with Jim Allison’s story. Using a novel approach he discovered that the immune system could ‘melt tumors’ away in Mice. 

Jim was getting amazing results. He went to the pharmaceutical companies to get funding in order for him to explore his working theories further.

Unfortunately, the companies weren’t interested. They had invested and lost billions of dollars on similar concepts.

Jim was undeterred and spent the next 3 years building up evidence via his own research to prove it would help cure cancer patients.

Eventually, a small biotech company invested and Cancer Immunotherapy is now considered to be a miracle cure that has saved tens of thousands of lives. 

Confirmation Bias: The Creative Lesson

The point is people will reject your ideas. They will reject creative concepts and innovative ideas if they go against their belief systems.

It is confirmation bias. We seek out the information to back up our previously held beliefs and discount the information that challenges our beliefs. 

Even Edison’s lightbulb was rejected. 

Thomas Edison held 1093 patents. He is most famous for inventing the lightbulb for commercial use. 

But the lightbulb was scorned. Scientist Henry Morton of the Stevens Institute of Technology predicted the invention would be “a conspicuous failure.” 

Incredibly a British parliamentary committee claimed the light bulb was ‘good enough for our transatlantic friends … but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.’

In 1926, John Logie Baird the Scottish inventor created the first-ever television. It was laughed at. 

American radio pioneer Lee De Forest proclaimed it “a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.” 

20 years later people still unconvinced, with film producer Darryl Zanuck proclaiming in 1946 that ‘people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.’

As of 2019, there are 1.7 billion households with at least one TV.

Ideas take time. Movements don’t happen overnight. 

Unless you have deep pockets and don’t mind spending years or even decades creating new categories you are better starting a creative business in something that already exists.

Don’t invent something new. Join two things that already exist to create something new. 

But if you do invent a new category or a revolutionary idea that will change the world in 10-20 years be more Jim Allison rather than Ignaz Semmelweis. 

Don’t quit. Get the data and proof. 

But better to play in a game that already exists. That way you can break the rules and still win the game.

A bit about me

I’m an ex- multi-platinum artist manager. I created strategies and built audiences for artists who sold millions. I’ve challenged myself to write 50 articles in 50 working days. 45 down, 5 to go.

You can read more in the archives here. Find out more information on my website or connect on my LinkedIn

Interested in 1:1 Creative Business/ Personal Branding Strategy?

I help creators and solopreneurs become famous in their niches. I specialise in:

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  • Overcoming creative blocks that are holding you back
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