The Story Behind Handwashing

March 2, 2020

If you’re like us, you’re probably curious about how ideas get turned into reality. Well, here’s one that seems like a no-brainer to most of us: Washing your hands helps prevent the spread of illnesses like the coronavirus. Seems simple enough, right? Well, it took one doctor, multiple experiments, and a whole lot of opposition before the practice became mainstream.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis via Public Domain

In 1846, Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis was working in a maternity hospital in Vienna, Austria. He saw many women dying of a particular type of fever, commonly known as childbed fever, and he wanted to figure out why. So Dr. Semmelweis began experimenting by comparing two groups of women—one with male doctors and medical students delivering their babies, and the other with women midwives (women who specialized in helping with childbirth) delivering their babies.

Turns out, more women were dying in the ward with the male doctors and medical students than the women who had midwives. Semmelweis then conducted experiments with different conditions, none of which produced any changes in the results. He tried getting the mothers in the doctors’ wards to deliver babies and reduce distractions (just like with mothers in the midwives’ wards), but there were no changes; still more women were dying in the wards with doctors and medical students than women with midwives.

Finally, Semmelweis discovered one key difference between the two groups: The doctors and medical students were performing other tasks, such as autopsies on dead bodies, while the midwives were just there to help deliver babies. Could it be that particles from the dead bodies made their way from the doctors’ and medical students’ hands into the delivery ward? Semmelweis then required his doctors to wash their hands (with chlorine, no less) and voila, the number of deaths in the doctors’ wards went down!

Louis Pasteur via Public Domain

Oddly enough, Semmelweis was shunned for his discovery because many doctors were offended that their lack of hygiene might be the reason patients were dying. It wasn’t until another scientist, Louis Pasteur, confirmed years later that the method was a sure way to reduce the spread of germs and infections that handwashing was taken more seriously as a way of preventing the spread of disease. Nowadays, no one questions that handwashing is one of the best things to do for staying healthy and preventing the spread of disease.

How should you wash your hands? Check out this step by step poster from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

via @cdc.gov