By Glen Drummond
Estimated Reading Time: 3:00 minutes

Does the competitiveness of your product, or even the success of your business depend on someone else changing their mind or practices?  If so, then here’s an instructive tale.

Louis Pasteur

This name, you probably know. Historical reports indicate that by age 55 Louis Pasteur was considered a national hero of France.  He won an impressive series of honours and awards for his pioneering work – perhaps most important the germ theory of disease – a theory he developed in the period between 1860 and 1864.

Ignaz Semmelweis

This name most people don’t know. In 1846, Semmelweis was appointed to lead the obstetrical clinic of Vienna General Hospital.  In 1847, he got to the bottom of a horrendous (35%) mortality rate from “childbed fever” – drawing a link between doctors performing autopsies and then attending to birthing mothers without first disinfecting their hands.

In his 1861 book, Semmelweis presented evidence to demonstrate that the advent of pathological anatomy in Wien (Vienna) in 1823 (vertical line) was accompanied by the increased incidence of fatal childbed fever. The second vertical line marks introduction of chlorine hand washing in 1847. Rates for the Dublin Rotunda maternity hospital, which had no pathological anatomy, are shown for comparison (view rates).

In the span of one year presiding over the maternity ward,  Semmelweis established both cause and cure – instituting a regimen of physicians handwashing with a chlorine solution.  Semmelweis conceived and implemented hospital infection-control procedures resulting in dramatic clinical improvements – a full 15 years before Pasteur.  And he actively promoted his findings for all to see.  

Fifteen years later, Pasteur basked in glory for his achievements in the understanding of the cause and control of infection.  Semmelweis was ignored by his contemporaries, who refused to adopt his infection-control procedures. Semmelweis became despondent and his life deteriorated into tragedy.   What’s the difference?

The course of a person’s life does not reduce well to a theory – but the course of an idea’s progression in society is a worthy subject of study.  Some good ideas have a hard time breaking through. And conversely some bad ideas catch on and linger. What’s interesting is that in this case we have almost the same idea – but in one case it catches on, and in the other it does not.

So what is the difference?  One clear difference in this case is “Framing.” 

Semmelweis saw that the behavior of the doctors (performing autopsies and then attending to mothers giving birth) was causing the mothers to be infected with “childbed fever”.   

He theorized, and then clinically demonstrated, that a change in doctor’s behavior (handwashing after performing autopsies, before attending to living patients) could sharply reduce maternal mortality.    Do you see the framing problem? In order to get doctors to stop killing mothers, they would have to admit to themselves that their past actions had been killing mothers. The frame generated a headwind of cognitive dissonance. 

Pasteur was not necessarily a more gifted clinician. But he was certainly a more gifted framer.   He recast the narrative of infection, shifting attention from the practices of the doctor to the “infectious agent” –  the pathogen or “germ.” Semmelwies invented infection control. Pasteur invented a signifier to represent a signified that was already, but only, implicit in Semmelweis’s clinical innovation. 

From the standpoint of clinical procedures, there’s nothing in the germ theory of disease that would cause Semmelweis to act any differently in his own clinic; nothing that would improve upon the results he obtained.  But from the standpoint of convincing other doctors to change their practices, the germ theory of disease was far more effective than Semmelweis’s call for doctors to change their practices.  

We can draw a lesson from comparing  the accomplishments of these two men.  We may draw a contrast in our mind between the “real” work of innovation and the “fluff” of representation,  but to do so is to mis-recognize the way people respond to change.  

Inventors who wish to gain attention for tangible innovation should not ignore the need for a new frame to go with it.   

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