Read the fascinating story of Dr. Semmelweis or why wisdom comes to us when we let go of obsessing with ‘the problem’. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was a young doctor at a Viennese maternity clinic in the 1840ies … His jobs was to find out, why the clinic had a massive rate of child fever in one wing of the clinic, while in the other wing it was low. The first wing was the one with medical staff and students, the second wing was the one with the midwifes.

When he took the job 10% of women in his wing died from child bed fever after giving birth. This was a much higher rate than the one of women that gave birth in the streets of Vienna… He was puzzled, irritated and excluded logically every difference in the way women were treated in the hospital: cultural, religious and social differences. And they continued to search for the cause: Every morning Dr. Semmelweis and his medical students went to the autopsie room to examine corpses of dead women in order to find evidence. And after working in the autopsie room they went back to the delivery rooms to help women deliver babies. Mortality rate remained high and he reached a point of total desperation. The situation made Semmelweis so miserable ”that life seemed worthless”. At this point he took a 3 week vacation. He travelled to Switzerland and relaxed and stopped thinking constantly about ‘the problem’…

When he return his good friend and colleague Jakob Kolletschka died. He had been accidentally poked with a student’s scalpel while performing an examination. Kolletschka’s own autopsy showed a similar picture to that of the women who were dying from childbed fever. This it when it dawned on Ignaz Semmelweis: He proposed a connection between the corpses and childbed fever. He discovered an invisible cause.

He proposed that he and the medical students carried “cadaverous particles” on their hands from the autopsy room to the patients they examined in their wing of the hospital. This explained why in the other wing, where no autopsies were there was no contact with corpses, saw a much lower mortality rate. The germ theory was not yet accepted at the time in Vienna. Thus he suggested a contamination from working with corpses and introduced a policy to wash hands with a chlorinated solution before going into the delivery rooms.

The death rate dropped to zero in two months in the year following this discovery…

Answers and clarity come when we stop engaging with our worries. Without actually doing anything. Wisdom comes to us when we give it space.

What is your experience with ‘focussing on the problem’. Do you remember situations when you found wisdom by letting go of worried thinking or focussing on the problem?