Brad Pitt Doesn't Believe in Germs. Could he be right?

By Dino Dogan

If you’ve never seen the movie 12 Monkeys starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis - do yourself a favor. Buy it, rent it, steal whatever you have to do to watch it because it is that great. My top 5 all time favs.

One of the most memorable scenes was when Jeffrey (Brad Pitt’s character) and Cole (Bruce Willis’ character) were in the insane asylum discussing the Germ Theory.

It went like this.

JEFFREY: You know what "crazy" is? "Crazy" is "majority rules". Take germs for example.

COLE: Germs?!

JEFFREY: In the 18th century there was no such thing! Nobody'd ever imagined such a thing -- no sane person anyway. Along comes this doctor...Semmelweis, I think. He tries to convince people... other doctors mostly...that there are these teeny tiny invisible "bad things" called germs that get into your body and make you...sick! He's trying to get doctors to wash their hands. What is this guy...crazy? Teeny tiny invisible whaddayou call 'em?..."germs"!

I have to admit, I went little bananas in the theater when I heard this dialogue because the story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is one of the most fascinating tales of off all time IMHO.

It goes like this.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician working at the Vienna General Hospital back in 1847.

There are three logistical facts you should know about his story.
  1. Vienna General was divided into two wings. One wing was used as a training ground for young student doctors where any and all types of operations, surgeries, and general care was being provided to patients for free since it was a teaching hospital.
  2. The other wing was tended to by midwives and catered to half the preggos that came through the door.
  3. The mortality rate for new mothers -due to something they called childbed fever- was 10% in one of the wings. The other wing had the mortality rate of 4%.
If you read that and thought to yourself “ahhh...the midwives were screwing up on the job and killing one out of 10 new mothers”, then my friend I am forced to diagnose you with an Authority Bias

The fact is that the 10% mortality rate was well known around Vienna and the wing that gave you one of 10 chances of surviving a pregnancy was the wing that was inhabited by authoritative doctors in white coats.

If you are surprised, don't be.

Doctors have a long history of being plain old wrong.

In 1960s doctors cited research that “showed” commercial formulas to be superior to Mother’s milk. In fact, by the early 1970s, over 75% of babies in the United States were fed on formulas, almost entirely commercially produced. (source: Wikipedia)

This supposed research has been debunked since then, but not until it took hold in hearts and minds of many folks especially in underdeveloped nations. Thanks to industrial strength ad campaigns performed by PR geniuses like Edward Bernays.

Sidenote: I could be wrong on this, but I believe that the Culture Code of wealthy Mexicans is that its “peasant-like” to feed the kid its Mother’s milk (based on my observations alone, I would love for someone to comment on this). In other words, in Mexico, the baby formula is preferred (a show of status of sorts) over Mother’s milk.

Another example of doctors being moronic is when they acted as shills for tobacco companies.

From the 1920s until it became illegal few decades later, doctors advertised cigarettes.

In China, doctors still recommend cigarettes to their patients.

Not coincidentally, tobacco industry in China is run by the Chinese Government.

From pills that plain-old don't work (or make things worse) to unnecessary surgeries; doctors -those authority figures in white coats- have a long history of being wrong.

The reason is simple. Show me an expert and I will show you someone who has interests other than your own.

But let's get back to Semmelweis.

Semmelweis eventually suspected that whats killing new mothers were these “cadaver particles” carried on the hands of white-coats as they went from doing autopsies to delivering babies.

What might be even more disturbing is that a study after study shows that doctors washing their hands is still a novelty act to this day.
See: Superfreakonomics, A bestselling book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

In any case, Semmelweis devised and implemented a system where all doctors, nurses, and midwives are to wash their hands diligently in a lime solution when moving from one patient to another. The mortality rate plummeted to less than 1 patient in a 100 for both hospital wings.

And now for the truly bizarre twist.

Despite Semmelweis’ best efforts to spread his system of “washing hands in a lime solution” to other hospitals, he was not only unsuccessful at it, but he was ridiculed and eventually discredited and wound up in the same place as Jeffrey (Brad Pitt) and Cole (Bruce Willis) had their conversation about Semmelweis. The insane asylum.

The average white coat back then would say something like this:

Note: You must sound Indignant as you read this next line.

What? Me? I'm to blame for these women dying? Surely you jest. But I’m a doctor. Of higher class and stature than these peasants who can't even afford to pay for their own medical treatment. Why should I, a nobleman, have to wash MY hands to handle mere peasants? Why Semmelweis, you are crazy indeed.

Your average doctor from 1840s would probably sound something like that but do you think your average doctor from today would sound different?

As it turns out, another physician and a scientist wrote the last chapter in the book on Semmelweis’ life. That physician was Louis Pasteur who -in 1865- developed his Germ theory of disease thanks to another scientific breakthrough (i.e. microscope).

Semmelweis was ultimately redeemed and proven correct but unfortunately, he was long dead by then. He died in that insane asylum at the age of 47.

Semmelweis’ story ends there, but ours doesn't.

The truly remarkable part of this story is that Louis Pasteur confirmed the existence of something people have known about -at least colloquially- for thousands of years.

In the year 50BC (approx) M. T. Varro wrote: "in swampy places minute creatures live that cannot be discerned with the eye and they enter the body through the mouth and nostrils and cause serious diseases."

That's as far back as we can trace. In between 50BC and 1846, there were many instances where “minute creatures” were suspected of nefarious doings.

I suspect that part of the reason doctors were resistant to change (wash their hands) is that they simply didn't know. They didn't have access to the Internet back in 1846. Information was scarce. But my point is...the information was out there.

Do you think experts -generally speaking- consider themselves well informed?

Do you think they all believe that they are correct in their assertions? (Whatever assertions those might be)

Do you think that experts are the only ones prone to this kind of self-deception?

Do you think you (and I) might suffer from the same doctoropathy disease from time to time?

Whats my point? Not sure, but let's see if we can tie one on.

How about....

To a worm in horseradish, the world is all horseradish.

When making our judgments, its safe to assume that we are all just a worm in horseradish. We don't have all the information and therefore none of us are qualified to pass our judgments on another. Especially if those judgments will send someone to an insane asylum.


  1. Thnx for landing me your soap box Jana...I had a lot of fun writing this did a great job formating the text and picture placement is awesome :-)

  2. Thank YOU for writing it. I couldn't have done such a great job. Glad you had fun with it, maybe we should do this again!

    Formatting options here feel very limited to me, but I did my best with it ;-)

  3. Great blog Jana. I enjoy the stuff you post on facebook dog health group as well, I'm a fly on the wall there too

    So cool to see you and Dino colaborate, I'm a total stalker.....totally addicted to his blogs.

    This post is amazing, so much interesting and unique information even though I was familiar with Semmelweiss before, this gave me a whole new level of understanding.

    See you around and keep this up :)

  4. Hi Chris! Fly on the wall, huh? :-)

    Dino is a great guy and a great writer. I felt that this post would be best written by him and I'm happy that he agreed to do that.

    What I'm trying to do is to get people to THINK for themselves, doing their research and learning to ask the right questions. As it is something we failed to do in the past and I believe that our Jasmine paid for that.

  5. Great post, Dino. Very thought-provoking. I have to admit..when I started reading, I wondered where you where going with this post. But you hooked me and kept me reading :-)

    Your post serves as a reminder that it is important to keep an open mind and not dismiss new ideas as unworthy. We've discovered so much about the world we inhabit even in the past few years. Not just medicine but the whole world in general. But there's still so much we don't know.

    Another example similar to Semmelweis but in a totally different field: We once thought that sun-light was mandatory for all living things. That's what we were taught in school. That's what all the scientists (experts) told us. It was Biology 101. Now we know that there are populations of creatures on the ocean floor that never see the light of day, but feed off of the chemicals from geothermal vents. Totally rewrote what we thought we knew about what makes life possible, the basic building blocks of life, so to speak. I mention this just as another example of a "fact" that turned out to be less than "factual".

    The world keeps evolving and changing. We keep discovering new things. Closing our minds to the concept of something new, even if it's foreign to us and even if it humbles us, is counter-productive. Jana is right. We all need to learn to think for ourselves.

    Dino, thanks for giving me some food for thought! And Jana, great idea for a post!

  6. Lorie, so glad you liked it! I was a bit worried not to offend people I respect. But you put me to shame and reminded me why I respect you in the first place.

    Yes, the post was meant as a reminder that the worst thing we can do is to either figure that we don't have to know any more than we do, or perhaps worse, that we already do know everything.

    Thank you for the great additional example! Very cool!

    I still remember that at one point at school first aid class they were teaching us: "The last thing you want to do with a burn wound is to try to cool it!" I accepted that but it didn't make much sense to me. "Perhaps they know something I don't," I concluded.

    Few years later we were taught: "The first thing you want to do with a burn wound is to try to cool it!"

    This has always been one of the reminders to me, that authority experts do change their minds about truths.

  7. Hi Lorie, Im so glad you liked it :-)

    Admittedly, I take a scenic route to my points :-) but Im glad you hung in there :-)

    Great example regarding sunlight as a requirement for life...I wonder how many examples we can collect here ...not only of people being wrong but also people being right, then "proven" to be wrong only to be proven right again :-)

    Leeches come to mind. Leeches were used in all sorts of exposed wounds until it fell out of fashion by modern-day purveyors of medicine. We are now re-discovering the healing properties of leeches and are able to quantify the benefits and explain the chemical processes that occur.

    Weird huh? :-)

  8. Dear Dino

    Was it Leeches or Maggots? Kinda thought it was Maggots for open wounds?

  9. It was def leeches, but some may have used maggots at some point..not sure.

  10. Interesting, thought leeches were used differently.

  11. well...whaddaya know...people use to use both maggots AND leeches ...who knew :-)

  12. Interesting indeed. I knew about the leeches used when 'blood involvement'.

  13. Interesting, but wrong on an important point. Bacteria were discovered under the microscope back in the 1680s.
    And the microscope went even further back.

  14. The point really is the impact of the patients, not the discovery itself. And the main point is that nobody is without error. And just because everybody believes something that doesn't make it correct.

  15. I am very glad I stumbled upon this post. Great work Dino! I am trying to remember something one of my vet school professors repeatedly told us...

    30% of what we think we know today will be wrong in 10 years.
    30% of the time we think we are helping our patients we are actually hurting them, and 50% of the time we are "successful" in treating or curing them, they would have healed on their own without our medical intervention.

    I'd love it if we had access to the actual stats of this, but I think he was trying to drive home your point, our knowledge will always be limited, and keep an open mind.

    Thanks for the great read!

  16. Laci, I don't think anybody is going invest money in statistics illustrating our errors :-)

    Dino did a great job, didn't he? I asked him to write this for me because I wanted people to keep open minds and not dismiss things just because they are not main stream.


Post a Comment