The History of Handwashing

May 20, 2020

Washing your hands is one of the best ways to stay healthy and prevent the spread of viruses. This sounds like common sense today, but it wasn't always. Before the 19th century, people rarely washed their hands in medical settings. Fortunately, doctors and scientists made some important discoveries about germs and hygiene that slowed the spread of diseases, reduced death rates, and improved public health.

Ignaz Semmelweis: The Founding Father of Hand Hygiene

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor at the Vienna General Hospital was the most well-known early proponent of hand-washing. In the mid-1800s, Semmelweis noticed that the maternal mortality rate for the midwives' ward was much lower than the doctors' ward and that the doctors' ward had a high rate of infection. When a colleague died of an infection after cutting his finger during an autopsy, Semmelweis discovered a connection. Unlike midwives, doctors would examine women in the maternity ward after they performed autopsies. Germ theory did not yet exist, so Semmelweis proposed that "cadaveric matter" was infecting women in the doctors' maternity ward and causing fever and death.

Semmelweis started requiring doctors to wash their hands after performing autopsies, and the maternity mortality rate dropped dramatically. The other doctors didn't like the implication that they were responsible for the mothers' deaths, though. For years, most doctors resisted Semmelweis' hand-washing ideas.

Germ Theory

Throughout the second half of the century, germ theory became more widely understood and accepted. In 1876, scientist Robert Koch discovered the bacillus anthrax pathogen, which launched new research into bacteriology. This led to the discovery of cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and many other pathogens.

By the 1890s, surgeons were washing their hands constantly. Around the turn of the century, there were several public health campaigns about hand-washing to prevent tuberculosis. People became very cautious about shaking hands, kissing, and eating food that may have been contaminated. However, as death rates from bacterial diseases dropped, hygiene habits became laxer.

Today, experts accept hand-washing as an important hygiene practice. The CDC recommends washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before rinsing with warm water. If everyone makes an effort to wash their hands regularly, it can have a major impact on the spread of illnesses.

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