The history and importance of washing your hands
Hand-washing is commonly accepted today as a practice intended to protect ourselves from the transmission of germs and other pathogens, but hand-washing wasn’t always a common practice even among medical professionals. In fact, its connection to our health was first established in 1847 by Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician and early pioneer of antiseptic procedures.
A historical perspective
The story of hand-washing begins in the maternity wards of a hospital in Vienna, where Dr. Semmelweis was chief resident. He was puzzled that maternal mortality rates were three times higher in the obstetrical clinics runs by medical students than those run by midwives. To investigate why more women were succumbing to a fatal disease known as puerperal fever, or “childbed fever,” he analyzed the differences between the clinics.
The only difference he found was that the medical students examined patients after handling the decomposing tissue of cadavers in the autopsy room. He suspected that the cadaver material was “poisonous” and caused the illness. He thought this explained the lower mortality rates in the midwives clinic––they had never spent time in the autopsy room and come into contact with corpses.
Dr. Semmelweis became a proponent of hand-washing to stop the transmission of infection to patients. He proposed that the medical students use a solution of chlorinated lime to disinfect their hands between autopsy work and patient exams. Following his discovery and institution of the new hand-washing policy, mortality rates in both clinics plummeted to zero.
Although Dr. Semmelweis demonstrated that hand-washing prevents infection and reduces mortality rates, his ideas were largely rejected or ignored by the medical community because they lacked scientific explanation and conflicted with the prevailing medical opinions of the time. The practice of hand-washing wasn’t widely accepted until years later when germ theory was developed and proven by scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and others.
An important health measure
In today’s age, hand-washing is mandatory for medical professionals. The general public at large is also encouraged to wash their hands to minimize the spread of infectious diseases. Because our hands so frequently come into contact with germ-laden surfaces, the habit of simply cleaning hands with soap and warm water regularly is an effective and inexpensive way to protect against many illnesses and prevent the spread of illness to others. Think about that the next time you wash your hands.