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The term originated from the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that childbed fever mortality rates reduced ten-fold when doctors washed their hands with a chlorine solution between patients and, most particularly, after an autopsy (at the institution where Semmelweis worked, a university hospital, physicians performed autopsies on every deceased patient). Semmelweis's decision stopped the ongoing contamination of patients—mostly pregnant women—with "cadaverous particles". His hand-washing suggestions were rejected by doctors of his time, often for non-medical reasons. For instance, some doctors refused to believe that a gentleman's hands could transmit disease.
While there is some uncertainty regarding the origin and generally accepted use of the expression, the expression Semmelweis Reflex has been documented and at least used by the author Robert Anton Wilson. In Wilson's book The Game of Life, Timothy Leary provided the following polemical definition of the Semmelweis reflex: "Mob behavior found among primates and larval hominids on undeveloped planets, in which a discovery of important scientific fact is punished".