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When Joseph Lister first suggested surgeons wear clean gloves and wash their hands with carbolic acid before cutting open their patients, many fellow doctors ridiculed the idea.
After all, everyone knew that spontaneous generation was responsible for the sudden appearance of bacteria, and that pus was necessary for healing wounds. Not that many had time to heal, of course, because in those days, around half of surgical patients died under the knife.
But when Lister began spraying his hands, instruments and patients with carbolic acid a century or so ago, he reduced surgical mortality almost overnight from a norm of 40 to 60 per cent down to 15 per cent. When sceptical colleagues followed his lead, the risk of dying in hospitals dropped dramatically.
Lister was not the only medical innovator to encounter opposition and ignorance, and disinterest, from those more comfortable with the status quo. When Alexander Fleming discovered that the mould Penicillium notatum, could kill bacteria, its importance too was not immediately realised, and William Harvey's discovery in the early 17th century that blood travelled in a closed circuit was considered so revolutionary, he himself remarked: “The idea is so novel, that I not only fear injury to myself from the envy of a few, but I tremble lest I have mankind at large for my enemies. Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination, which helped to eradicate smallpox, and protect millions against myriad diseases, from chickenpox to tetanus, was also greeted with similar dissent.
The idea and theories of countless other would-be innovators have, of course, been found wanting, and have fallen by the wayside. The challenge is to be able to distinguish the ideas that are plausible and possible, from the fanciful and the failures.