Credits: Van Santen & Bolleurs

Text: Gaby van Caulil

Who can call himself the most neglected scientist ever? Perhaps the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Back in 1866, he described the laws of genetics, but they were only "discovered" 34 years later. Or is it Alfred Wegener? He proved with fossils and rocks that the continents are slowly drifting apart. Other scientists saw nothing in his ideas and rejected his theory. The story of Rosalind Franklin is even more tragic still: she produced the X-ray diffraction photos of DNA that Watson & Crick slyly made off with. She died before the Nobel Prize was awarded.

The treatment of our own Wouter Buikhuijsen should not be forgotten either. At the end of the 1970s, he wanted to study the disposition for criminality. He was subsequently damned in the literature, threatened, and sidelined by the university. Despite this, he was rehabilitated during his life by Leiden University in 2010. The Greek Aristarchus, who 300 years before Christ already realised that planets revolved around the sun had to wait slightly longer for scientific recognition: just another 2000 years.­

Yet, the most distressing lack of recognition must be that of the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis. In the 19th century, up to one third of women died from the mysterious childbed (puerperal) fever. By studying the statistics at a maternity clinic in Vienna, Semmelweis discovered that the ward where students and doctors worked was far more deadly than that where midwives supervised the births. Those doctors and students did autopsies in the morning and births in the afternoon. Semmelweis discovered that the women became ill due to ‘particles’ from the corpses in the autopsy room. In response, he introduced the washing of hands in chlorinated water at the entrance to the maternity ward after which the mortality rate decreased from twenty to three percent.­


However, Semmelweis could forget about a hero status because he did, after all, demonstrate that medical personnel had caused the death of thousands of women. After his departure, the clinic in Vienna immediately got rid of his "crazy ideas". The mortality figure rose by a factor of six. Semmelweis also failed to convince other hospitals about his ideas. Washing hands did not become a routine. Furthermore, Semmelweis hated writing. The causality was therefore never recorded in a proper scientific article and disseminated via the usual channels. The academic recognition came thirty years after his death, and the death of many young mothers too.

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