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The Danger of Washing Your Hands: What a 19th Century Hungarian Doctor Taught Me About Running ENGin

*This post is adapted from Katerina Manoff's speech at our annual event "The Power of Conversation

Collage of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis and ENGin Participants

In 1847, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis came up with a wild idea. He'd noticed a problem in the obstetrics ward of the Viennese hospital where he'd been practicing: a tragic, stubbornly high incidence of postpartum infections in new moms, leading to death rates as high as 1 in 5 women. None of the other doctors or medical students at the well-regarded teaching hospital could figure out why - and they didn't seem too bothered about it.

Semmelweis was bothered. The clinic, which catered to poor women bearing illegitimate children, had gotten a terrible reputation. Women would rather give birth on the streets than take their chances with the doctors. 

And there was another mysterious twist. This same hospital had a second maternity ward, this one staffed exclusively by midwives. The death rate there was a fraction of what Semmelweis and his colleagues could achieve. 

Semmelweis began experimenting. He tirelessly compared every detail of the processes and procedures at the clinics. His breakthrough came by chance - when a friend died of infection after a cut from a dirty scalpel while performing an autopsy. 

At this time, germs had not yet been discovered. There was no theory to guide Semmelweis. But he took a shot in the dark and proposed that there was something dangerous in those cadavers. Perhaps, doctors who had been doing autopsies should wash their hands in an antiseptic solution before delivering babies. 

Of course, he didn't expect his colleagues to take his revolutionary idea for granted. He set up an experiment with a new handwashing protocol and documented how maternal mortality fell from 18% to 2%. And then, he went out into the field to tell his story. 

The other doctors did not take this well. They were offended at the suggestion that their hands could possibly be dirty. They mocked Semmelweis and ran him out of Vienna. He got increasingly desperate,  his words grew more aggressive, but nothing changed. He ultimately had a nervous breakdown and was put into an insane asylum, where he was beaten to death. 

Nearly 200 years later, I was logging into a Zoom call to share an innovation of my own. Mine didn't save lives, but it certainly made them better :) And, like Semmelweis' idea, it didn't quite fit. 

A lot has changed since the 19th century, but we still live in a world of boxes - language study, psychological support, cultural exchange, professional mentorship. ENGin transcends these categories, igniting conversations that offer English fluency, friendship, cultural exchange, academic and professional support, all in whatever particular mix each student needs. ENGin is incredible - we know this because tens of thousands of people have joined the program and loved it - but it's a hard sell to the powers that be.

Last week, I had the chance to meet an influential member of the Ukrainian diaspora who is passionate about Ukraine's recovery and involved in high-level government, nonprofit, and business circles. I asked for his advice about our dilemma - how can I put the ENGin magic into words? 

I described our simple, one-of-a-kind model that has reached nearly 45,000 people; I explained how both students and volunteers benefit from their ENGin sessions. He listened patiently, and then he said, "Yeah, no one is going to fund that. Unless your husband is a multimillionaire, I suggest you come up with a new idea."

I won't lie, I was a little crushed. But, I decided, if Ignaz Semmelweis could take it, so can I. So long as hundreds of students are signing up for our program every week (without us even marketing in Ukraine!), I will continue fighting for ENGin. 

As just one regular person, there may not be much I can do. But, as one of my favorite Ukrainian sayings reminds me, "I am a drop in the ocean." 

Alone, we may be tiny drops of water. But, when we come together, we can do anything. ENGin is proof of that. 

ENGin is lucky to have something Semmelweis did not. We have all of you. We are here today because of regular people just like you, who believe in our revolutionary approach, who understand that the fact that we don't fit in a box is our strength, not our weakness. Together, we can change the lives of a generation of Ukrainians. We can put Ukraine on a trajectory to peace, recovery, and growth. 

Innovation has always been an uphill battle - I don't think it will ever get easier. Innovators must fight the powerful forces of inertia and entrenched power imbalances. It's no surprise that most startups fail, regardless of industry or mission. 

And yet, we are here today. We are here because thousands of regular people have supported us - donating, organizing fundraisers, sourcing grants from their employers, encouraging their friends to join the program as volunteers, writing to their local media. These community-driven efforts are at the heart of ENGin's success so far, and they are what will help our program thrive against the odds. 

Please join me in this fight to build Ukraine's and Ukrainians' futures. 

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May 12
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Well said, Katerina.

I've been a volunteer since April 2023 and this little "drop in the ocean" will continue to support ENGin for as long as I can.

Keep up the great work!

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