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Majority Not Always Right

In 1844 a medical doctor named Ignas Phillip Semmelweis, who was assistant director at the Vienna Maternity Hospital, suggested to the doctors that the high rate of death of patients and new babies was due to the fact that the doctors attending them were carrying infections from the diseased and dead people whom they had previously touched. Semmelweis ordered doctors to wash their hands with soap and water and rinse them in a strong chemical before examining their patients. He tried to get doctors to wear clean clothes and he battled for clean wards. However, the majority of doctors disagreed with Semmelweis and they deliberately disobeyed his orders. In the late nineteenth century, on the basis of the work by Semmelweis, Joseph Lister began soaking surgery instruments, the operating table, his hands, and the patients with carbolic acid. The results were astonishing. What was previously risky surgery now became routine. However, the majority of doctors criticized his work also. Today we know that Lister and Semmelweis were right; the majority of doctors in their day were wrong. Just because the majority believe one thing does not necessarily mean it is true.

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