Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865)
The Father of Disinfection
Semmelweis was the first doctor to suggest that infectious diseases can spread when doctors don’t wash their hands or disinfect their tools, years before we learned about the germ theory of disease. Semmelweis was an obstetrician in Vienna, and he noticed that the mortality rate of women post childbirth was much higher in hospital births than in midwife-delivered births.
He believed that this was because doctors at the time used to routinely examine corpses and perform autopsies, and then they would carry on assisting births, which, as Semmelweis concluded, must have spread the disease to the women. To counteract this, he made the doctors and nurses wash their hands before assisting childbirth and even started disinfecting tools.
This decreased the death rate of post-delivery deaths almost immediately, and Semmelweis published several papers about this phenomenon, but no one believed him. He was ultimately fired from his job in Vienna and continued his practice in Budapest, and there too, the mortality rates among women dropped by 25%.
Demoralized and puzzled by the ignorance of the scientific community, Semmelweis developed clinical depression and was administered to a mental facility, where he unexpectedly died, likely from injuries he suffered from the staff of the hospital in an attempt to flee.
Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)
Discovered Genetic Inheritance
A monk by trait, Gregor Mendel was a born scientist: he was both a talented mathematician and a brilliant biologist. Mendel single handedly founded the science of genetics when, while working in the garden of the monastery, he noticed that some of the sweet pea flowers had a mixed coloring, whereas others only had one color.
This made him think that there are some traits, such as the color of the flowers, must be passed on generation to generation, and when these traits are different in the “mother” and the “father” plant, it can yield in a mixed trait. He then carried on interbreeding pea plants with various traits and traced the basic mechanisms of genetic inheritance, which he published in a paper that was completely ignored.
Mendel moved on with his life and became the abbot of his monastery. Only 16 years after his death, his work was rediscovered and it became the basis of genetics, as we know it today.
William B. Coley (1862-1936)
The Founder of Immunotherapy
At the end of the 19th century, there was no radiation, chemotherapy, or cancer drugs, and the standard procedure for cancerous tumors involved cutting them out tumors or cancerous tissues. William Coley was a bone surgeon who worked at New York Cancer Hospital.
He noticed that some patients suffering from bacterial infections, such as streptococcus infections, were more likely to recover from cancer without surgeries than other patients. This made Coley inject several patients with a weakened version of strep and another bacteria, which, in some cases, made the patients cancer shrink dramatically, but in others, patients ended up dying from the infections he administered.
This cancer treatment was called Coley's toxins, and he and a few other doctors who believed Coley’s theory used it to treat cancer. Unfortunately, Coley’s theory was not accepted well in the scientific community and was forgotten for almost half a century.
Only in the 1960’s, many years after his death, the idea of immunotherapy reappeared in medical research, and Coley’s numerous papers played an important role in establishing this field of cancer treatment.
Alfred Wegener (1880-1930)
First Proposed the Theory of Continental Drift
Wagener was a geophysicist and meteorologist, whose life is as tragic, as it was exciting. Wegener studies earth samples from various continents and noticed a strange pattern: the composition of the samples from the Americas were eerily similar to that of Western Europe, and Australian fossils and rocks had an uncanny resemblance to those of Asia and New Zealand.
This urged him to suggest in a series of papers that Earth’s continents can move and have moved over millions of years. Once again, Wegener’s theory, too, was rejected by other scientists at the time. In 1930, he went on an expedition to Greenland and died at the age of 50.
It was only 20 years later, in the 1960’s that the theory of continental drift was established as a scientific fact.
Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)
Discovered the Heliocentric Solar System
During antiquity, scientists established that we live in a heliocentric solar system, meaning that all the planets revolve around the sun. However, this knowledge was lost for hundreds of years, until Copernicus re-established it in 1543 in his book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which was widely ignored, and people continued believing that the Earth was the center of the universe.
It also didn’t help that the Catholic church condemned his book and even banned it for centuries. Still, Copernicus’ study is considered to be one of the most notable astronomical achievements on the Middle ages and Copernicus is known by practically everyone.
The same applies to 4 other devoted scientists whom we discussed in this article. These stories go to show that persistence and devotion to the truth transcends time, whereas mockery and malevolence don’t, so be courageous and don’t be afraid to speak your truth.