Picture this: you are invited to someone’s home for dinner. After greeting you warmly at the door, the hostess excuses herself to use the bathroom. You hear the toilet flush and within seconds the bathroom door immediately opens and she exits. Your hostess proceeds to prepare food for dinner – without washing her hands. Would you want to eat her food? Call me picky or unreasonable, but I would suddenly develop food allergies to everything she had touched as an excuse not to put that food in my mouth.
Hand washing seems pretty intuitive. It’s hardly a complicated matter. Our hands get dirty. We wash them. The end. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) bombards us with facts on why we need to wash our hands, and how we should wash our hands. We all know hand washing stops the spread of viruses and nasty infections. We see commercials on TV, advertisements in magazines, and there are even signs in public restrooms reminding employees to soap up before returning to work.
Surprisingly, the basic concept of hand washing is a relatively new tidbit of disease prevention knowledge. While this controversial subject (yes – it was very controversial) took root in 1847, I tend to believe there were people in previous centuries who discovered that washing one’s hands was a good thing. There had to have an English lass in the Middle Ages who found that when she washed her hands after cleaning the family outhouse, that mysterious stomach virus stopped plaguing her household. But since we don’t know the name of that wise maiden, we give credit to the person who first publicly proclaimed the benefits of using soap and water on our hands.
That person was a Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis. Iggie was working in a Vienna hospital when he noticed something rather peculiar. Women who had their babies delivered by medical students often developed fatal infections after giving birth. Prior to Iggie entering the scene, these deaths were blamed on “an imbalance of humours in the body”. Humours were considered the four chief fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Basically, humours were regarded as the present day ying and yang of human bodily fluids.
While the rest of the obstetrical staff wrote the deaths off to those pesky humours (remember – this was before the existence of personal injury lawyers), Iggie was less convinced.
“Humours schmumours!” Iggie announced. (Actually, he didn’t. Or maybe he did.)
Iggie knew something more was going on than just the four chief body fluids getting out of whack. He decided to investigate.
Lo and behold, Iggie discovered that prior to delivering babies, the medical students were dissecting cadavers. Now, when I gave birth, my doctor practically put on a hazmat suit. But in 1847, medical students performed autopsies on dead bodies before moseying their way upstairs to the birthing room where they proceeded to deliver babies without washing their hands. Let’s simplify this: medical students had their hands deep inside the open cavities of a dead person before putting their unwashed, (and of course ungloved – they weren’t invented yet) hands deep inside “ladies’ cavities”.
Feeling a bit squirmy, ladies? Me too.
Iggie denounced this practice and mandated that all medical students wash their hands in a chloride lime solution after autopsies and prior to delivering babies. The maternal death rate plummeted.
Problem solved, right? Nope. Because nothing is ever simple (and people have a tendency to be stubborn jerks), the medical staff at the Vienna hospital derided Iggie.
“Have you heard what that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is proposing?” a Dr. Dorfmeister said while dining over Weiner Schnitzel.
“It’s outrageous!” Dr. Herrmann said, “Pass me a piece of that Gugelhupf, will you? Washing hands after performing autopsies! What’s next? Washing our hands after using the bathroom and coughing?”
“Hahaha. Oh, Dr. Herrmann. You’re such a card!”
The medical staff ridiculed and mocked poor Iggie. Soon he was dismissed from the Vienna hospital. Upon leaving (and the subsequent cessation of hand washing practices) maternal death rates skyrocketed again. But the medical staff continued to blame those darn humours for the women’s deaths, and not the remnants of dead body particles on the hands of medical students.
Iggie was unable to find work in the Vienna community. No one wanted to hire a handwasher. He moved to Budapest, where he continued to tout his hand washing practices. Similar to Vienna, Budapest doctors were not keen on the idea of washing hands in between delivering babies either. They thought it took too much time, and frankly, they would have to admit that all of those deaths were their fault.
Sadly, the continuous rejection of Iggie’s revolutionary discovery took its toll, and eventually he was admitted to a mental hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The benefits of hand washing weren’t accepted until decades after Iggie’s death.
Today, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is heralded as the pioneer of infection control. Let’s all think of him when we wash our hands later.