5The Controversial Practice of Hand Washing
What Their Feud Cost Us:
20-plus years of germ research and thousands of deaths.
In 19th century Vienna, it was probably safer to give birth in the street than in a hospital. Almost one in five births assisted by a male doctor ended with the mother, the child or both dying for mysterious reasons. The best explanation anyone had was that babies are naturally shy and will spontaneously die when seeing a male doctor.
Pictured: Safer than a hospital.
Ignaz Semmelweis didn't buy that load of crap, and instead embarked upon a large scale study, discovering that doctors often went to assist births immediately after doing autopsies. Apparently the least stupid scientist in all of Vienna, he concluded that the problem probably had something to do with the practice of handling a rotting corpse and a freshly born baby one after the other.
His recommendation was simply that doctors should take 30 seconds to wash their hands somewhere between the morgue and the maternity ward, a habit which was shown to cut mortality down to a comparatively astonishing one percent.
Unfortunately, the scientific community violently rejected the idea of hand washing, because it offended their status as gentlemen. One fellow by the name of Charles Meigs went as far as declaring that doctors should never have to wash their hands because doctors are gentlemen and "gentlemen's hands are always clean."
Likewise, a gentleman's hat is always "top."
Charles was joined in his attack by Johann Klein, the head of the Vienna maternity hospital, and together they managed to get Semmelweis kicked out of his position and assured he would never work in this town again.
The backlash against this not-exactly-radical healthcare reform was so severe that doctors who had already practiced some form of personal hygiene stopped doing so, and went on compensating for their threatened manhood with ever longer probes. Over the next three years, childbirth mortalities almost tripled.
It's like they weren't even trying to stay alive.
In the meantime, Semmelweis continued to attempt to spread the word about his findings, but without the support of the Vienna medical community no one really considered him a serious researcher. It wasn't for another 21 years, when Pasteur proved the existence of germs, that doctors finally took the blow to their masculinity and started washing their hands. In that time, around 14,518 mothers and children died in Vienna hospitals because of puerperal fever, a disease easily avoidable if doctors had used regular old soap and water.
4The Nautical Navigation Pissing Match
What Their Feud Cost Us:
Countless advances in navigation.
John Harrison was the kind of man that would put Leonardo Da Vinci to shame. By the age of 20, he was making incredibly precise wooden clocks which are still functioning today, almost 300 years later. However, his greatest invention was the marine chronometer, a device that actually let a boat figure out where the hell they were in the ocean.
"Yep, we're in the ocean."
Back in the 1700s, this was a huge problem. They had ways to calculate the latitude, i.e. how far north or south they were, but had no idea how to calculate the longitude, i.e. how far across the ocean they were. They presumably just sailed until they ran into land and said, "We're here!"
Which explains why anyone would live on Australia.
The British Empire decided to offer the equivalent of about five million dollars in today's currency to anyone who could figure out a way to fix this. John Harrison, surely imagining the team of solid-gold pantaloons he could buy with that kind of cash, spent three years creating a clock that could do the job. He figured that since you're sailing across what are now time zones, all you'd have to do is compare the position of the sun where you were with the time on your clock, and you know how far around the globe you had traveled.
Unfortunately, the board in charge of awarding the five million dollar prize was formed almost entirely of astronomers who considered clock-making to be the profession of assholes. Therefore, instead of declaring Harrison a genius and awarding him the prize, they demanded a better model of the clock.
Yeah, it's nice. But can it be a little... clocky-er?
Harrison built two more models, dedicating almost 30 years to improving the machines. However, when the board tested the clocks and found them almost flawless, they concluded that no machine could be so precise and that Harrison must have cheated using, presumably, voodoo. They then went ahead and hid the clock so that nobody could test it and prove them wrong.
Because you can't keep a good prodigy down, Harrison, who by now had spent about 60 years on this project, built another clock which was even more obscenely accurate than the others. When the board ignored him, Harrison complained to the fucking King of England who had to personally step in and tell the board to stop being a bunch of shits.
You'd listen to him, too.
Even still, scrambling desperately to save face, they gave Harrison less than half of the promised amount and declared that no one won.
The marine chronometer turned out to be the absolute best way of measuring longitude, but the adoption of the technology was slowed down by 60 freaking years because a bunch of astronomers couldn't believe a clock could be so accurate.
Thanks a lot, you dicks.
More depressing, though, is that John Harrison was one of history's most promising supergeniuses, and might have outshone everybody else on this list in terms of his total output of incredible discoveries, if not for the fact that the British government forced him to spend his entire life rebuilding the same clock over and over again.