27 Oct The (Surprisingly Interesting and Controversial) History of Hand Washing
Don’t judge a blog post by its title. This is a juicy one (or, as juicy as a history lesson can get)!
Did you know that advising healthcare professionals to wash their hands was once a controversial piece of advice? Yes, something that seems so obvious to us in 2021 actually cost a doctor his career for even suggesting it – in fact, it landed him in a psychiatric facility.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “wash your hands” more often in the past two years than all the previous years of your life combined. Today, it is basic knowledge that we have germs on our hands, and the easiest way to eliminate them is by washing our hands. It seems asinine to us that anyone would think otherwise.
Well, people in the 19th century didn’t know that. Let’s take it back to the 1840s in Austria – the Vienna General Hospital, to be exact. At the time, many new mothers were contracting a deadly ailment called puerperal fever shortly after giving birth.
This hospital had two separate maternity wards: one staffed by male physicians and the other by female midwives. One of the two had a staggeringly-higher mortality rate than the other. Can you guess which one?
If you guessed the ward of midwives, you’d be wrong. Women under the care of the physicians and medical students were dying at more than twice the rate of the midwives’ patients.
A Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis was determined to get to the bottom of this issue. He analyzed a variety of factors, from the position the women delivered in to the priests attending to the dying patients. He slowly ruled out each possibility.
Semmelweis didn’t give up, though. He began looking deeper into the differences between the hospital and the midwives’ ward and found something that stuck out to him: the doctors in the hospital were performing autopsies on cadavers in the mornings and then delivering babies in the afternoons. He had a theory that particles from the cadavers were being transferred to the women in the hospital’s maternity ward.
In 1847, Semmelweis made hand washing mandatory in the hospital. Guess what? The mortality rate among new mothers plummeted. But the story doesn’t end there.
Semmelweis was determined to spread the news of his discovery and help save more lives. In 1850, he presented his findings at a medical conference; however, he was rejected by the medical community because his theory conflicted with the widely-accepted medical principles at the time. Unfortunately, despite saving countless lives of patients, the Vienna General Hospital ditched the handwashing mandate.
In the following years, Semmelweis penned several articles and a book about handwashing, but his theories continued to be rejected. His health deteriorated and he ended up being committed to a mental institution, where he would remain until his death.
While it is truly tragic that Semmelweis did not live to see his theories taken seriously, his work led to the eventual development of germ theory, which completely revolutionized how doctors cared for their patients.
Doctors began washing their hands between patients in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s (yes, the nineteen eighties) that hand hygiene practices were officially adopted into American healthcare.
Well, that was a wild ride! Who knew hand washing could be so controversial?
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