For the health and wellbeing section this time, I want to cover a subject which also has great relevance to leadership in general, because it looks at core aspects of the advancement in knowledge of all kinds. Due to the amount of information involved, I’ve split the article into two parts, the second of which will be in the next newsletter.
Consider this quote:
“From inhaling the odour of beef, the butcher’s wife obtains her obesity.”
~ Professor H Booth, writing in the Builder, July 1844
Because our thinking has moved on, it sounds ridiculous today. It is obvious that the medical theory on which this idea was based, the Miasma Theory, which held that inhaling bad air was the cause of most, if not all, illness, is complete rubbish. However, that wasn’t always the case, so I’d like to start by looking at how acceptance of this theory impacted the adoption of later, more advanced, ideas.
Imagine, for a moment, if you could go back and walk the streets of London in the mid-1800s. It would have been commonplace to see people carrying a posy of flowers under their noses – at that time, it was considered very sensible to do so, as a means of protecting one’s health!
Imagine using your more advanced knowledge to persuade these people that their flowers were useless, assuring them that you had seen research proving the existence of invisible organisms which are the true cause of disease… It’s easy to envisage the likely reaction, because we’ve all experienced it many times when we challenge others’ deeply held beliefs.
In 1848, Ignatz Semmelweis began this journey. He was the first person to propose the “Germ Theory” of disease, having had an insight that deadly illnesses that were especially prevalent in hospitals might be caused by invisible, infectious agents or germs which were being spread on the hands of doctors and nurses. He gathered evidential proof of his ideas by getting medical staff in his wards to wash their hands in chlorinated lime, showing that this reduced death rates significantly. Nevertheless, his suggestion was widely criticised, ridiculed, or ignored by the “experts” of the day:
- Even ten years later, the editor of the Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, the international scientific medical journal, wrote that it was time to stop the nonsense about the chlorine hand wash.
- In 1961, his book on the subject was negatively received, and his ideas were again rejected.
Under the pressure of the scrutiny he was subjected to, Semmelweis suffered a breakdown in 1865 and was tricked by colleagues to visit a mental hospital where they locked him up. He died somewhat suspiciously 2 weeks later, supposedly from an infection.
Germ Theory finally became widely accepted over 40 years later, in the 1890s, as a result of the work of the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, the English surgeon Joseph Lister, and the German physician Robert Koch. They are now given much of the credit for development and acceptance of this theory, which still dominates today. It is sad to consider how many people died as a result of the refusal of the authorities at that time to take Semmelweis’ ideas seriously.
The commonplace nature of this kind of powerful resistance to new ideas was brilliantly exposed in a book written almost 60 years ago by Thomas Kuhn. Though few have heard of it, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has sold around 1.5 million copies (a huge number for a book of this nature) and is still considered a classic today. It changed scientific thinking, revealing that progress generally occurs through incremental developments in knowledge, where everyone uses a common framework, interspersed with periods of revolution, or crisis, where paradigms break down and new models of understanding are created. It was in this book that the concept of the “paradigm shift” was birthed.
I’m fascinated by these ideas because, from the perspective of mental development, there is an enormous difference between working within a model to advance it incrementally and having the open-minded creativity to leapfrog to a higher-level model which more accurately represents behaviours in the physical world. Working within the model can be valuable, however, being able to break the mold completely is where the potential for a transformation in results becomes possible.
Ironically, even before germ theory had reached general acceptance, it was already being challenged. The alternative idea, known as “Terrain Theory” (or the cellular theory), stated that the environment is more important than the germ, meaning that the quality of the internal environment mainly determines a person’s susceptibility to disease, not the germs they encounter. It suggests that when the terrain is healthy, the body can handle pathogenic microorganisms without succumbing to illness.
Terrain Theory was put forward by a French scientist, Claude Bernard, and later built upon by Antoine Béchamp. Like Semmelweis before him, Béchamp was branded a heretic, and Pasteur argued with him for years on the subject. However, Pasteur famously changed his mind on his deathbed, acknowledging that, “Le microbe n’est rien, le terrain est tout.” (The microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything).
While germ theory won the debate at the time, and has formed the core of Western medical thinking, the evidence is building powerfully to suggest that Pasteur’s deathbed utterance was correct. As a result, it could be that a paradigm shift towards the terrain theory might, finally, be approaching.
In the next newsletter, I’ll explore terrain theory in more detail, to see how this shift of mindset and belief systems holds the potential to transform our understanding of how to be healthy.
Should you wish to do so, you can read more on Kuhn, and the core principles in his book, in this article: