Hospital politics can be fatal.
In 1846, Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1) was appointed as assistant to Professor Johann Klein in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital. His duties were to examine patients prior to the morning ward round, supervise difficult deliveries, and teach students (kind of like a chief resident or house officer).
There was also a Second Obstetrical Clinic at the hospital. To Semmelweis' dismay, the maternal mortality rate in the First Clinic (his clinic) was 10%, whereas in the Second Clinic, it was only 4%. Most of the maternal mortality in both clinics was due to puerperal fever (bacterial infection of the female reproductive tract). Given that the two clinics used the same techniques and were located in the same place, this made no sense to Semmelweis; he sought an explanation.
Inspired, Semmelweis systematically eliminated all potential possibilities, and by end of this the only difference he could discern was that the First Clinic was reserved for instruction of medical students, whereas the Second Clinic instructed student midwives. Following an autopsy, the doctors and medical students would go straight to examining patients, whereas the student midwives had no autopsy instruction, so nobody there had any contact with corpses. Semmelweis postulated that the doctors and medical students must have been carrying "cadaverous particles" on their hands (the germ theory was not yet fully developed) from the autopsy to the examination room. Suspecting a link between cadaverous contamination and puerperal fever, he enforced hand-washing with chlorinated lime for all personnel after doing autopsy work, and as a result, mortality in the First Clinic dropped by 90%.
Semmelweis' discovery that cleanliness resulted in lower mortality rates, was - and this may (or may not) seem amazing today - largely ignored, rejected, or ridiculed by the medical community. Semmelweis couldn't believe that his colleagues were so blind to such an obvious truth. He couldn't handle it, couldn't adjust; he went on an all-out assault against the medical establishment, writing disrespectful and angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, sometimes calling them ignoramuses, or irresponsible murderers.
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.
However, the main impediment to the spread of Semmelweis' theory was his own head of department, Professor Klein, a conservative gentleman who wanted his doctors to adhere to the medical orthodoxies established by previous medical practice. Klein believed that Semmelweis was an inexperienced radical, and a tense political battle followed, in which Semmelweis and Klein argued incessantly over his theory, with Klein's fury climaxing when he and his colleagues were branded irresponsible murderers. As such, Klein refused to renew Semmelweis' assistantship, and the latter left for Vienna without so much as a goodbye to his remaining friends and allies.
Semmelweis renewed his policies in Budapest, cutting infection down yet again, but he continued to focus on the "obviousness" of his theory rather than try to convince others of it; he didn't have the time to show these unbelievers the truth. He refused to publish papers, refused to back up his theory with data. Finally, in 1860, he wrote a book explaining his ideas in full, but it was a hopelessly convoluted diatribe aimed more at denouncing his short-sighted colleagues than at any earnest attempt to explain the theory. It goes without saying that the book was not received well.
As the years rolled on, Semmelweis' behaviour became more erratic. He became absentminded and depressed, and steered every conversation towards his theory. In 1865, he was committed to a mental institution, and when he realized what was happening tried to leave, but the guards beat him, confined him to a dark cell, and he died two weeks later, aged 47, of gangrene.
It is unfortunate that Semmelweis did not adopt the approach of a colleague who lived over two centuries before him.
Ever since he was a medical student in 1602, the English physician William Harvey (2) had doubted the prevailing theory on the function of the heart. In medical school, the 1400-year old teachings of the Greek physician Galen were still taught, which stated that blood was "manufactured" in the liver and heart and flowed slowly from each to the various parts of the body, whereupon it was consumed; it did not flow back.
Harvey pondered this for years, a time during which his career prospered, culminating in an appointment as Royal Physician to King James I. By 1618, he had come up with an alternative theory, that blood did not flow slowly but rapidly throughout the body, with the heart acting as a pump, and it circulated continually, flowing back to the heart.
Like Semmelweis, Harvey had no direct way of verifying his theory, as studying live human hearts was forbidden and the only way open to him was to study live animals or human corpses. He ran controlled experiments, but he took his time, suspecting that his theory would stir up enmity (which he was not interested in doing). Some of his experiments were indirect - for example, he showed in experiments on serpents and fish that when he tied off the veins the heart became empty, and when he did the same to the arteries, it swelled up.