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Pioneer of hand-washing: Father of infection control, Ignaz Semmelweis

2020-03-27 15:50


Washing hands is one of the most important ways to fight this  COVID-19 pandemic crisis, as told international medical experts. However, before the 19th century, washing hands was not a basic hygiene concept. 

So, how has this concept of washing hands developed? Let's start with a significant person- Ignaz Semmelweis. 


Born in 1818, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician, scientist, a rebel, and now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures, is also called the "Father of infection control". Despite facing serious push back from his contemporaries, the 1850s doctor laid the groundwork for modern public-health measures. It is thanks to him that we know that hand washing prevents diseases.

Semmelweis discovered the medical benefits of handwashing while working in an obstetrics ward in a Vienna hospital and noticed that women delivering babies with the help of physicians and medical students were more than up to three times more likely to develop a fever and die than women whose babies were delivered by midwives or midwife trainees. 

The reason is scary but also well explains the number. hospital's doctors were rushing from case to case — which included handling corpses and performing autopsies — before delivering the babies, without washing their hands in between. As a result, they unwittingly carried germs, bacteria, and viruses from cadavers to their living patients, who later died of a disease they called "puerperal fever."

Therefore, Semmelweis instituted a hand-washing regimen for physicians and medical students in the obstetrics division, forcing them to disinfect their hands with chlorinated lyme. He also had staff wash medical instruments before and after procedures. The mortality rate among mothers delivered by physicians plummeted to the same rate as the midwives. 

Even though patients survived because of Semmelweis’ foresight, the medical establishment of the time rejected his idea. Semmelweis spent the rest of his life struggling to get people to take his hygiene ideas seriously, a goal that wouldn't come to fruition until more than 20 years after his death.

Only after Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch discovered the “germ theory" of disease, which argues that disease is primarily caused by micro-organisms — germs, viruses, and bacteria — an idea that's been borne out by science for over a century, did people start to make the connection between washing their hands and preventing illness. 

Hand washing itself wouldn't become a mainstay of public-health promotion until the 1980s — and it was prompted by a crisis. After a wave of foodborne disease outbreaks and healthcare-associated infections hit the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, the United States Centers for Disease Control finally instituted the first national hand hygiene guidelines. And thanks to Ignaz Semmelweis and people who valued this concept of handwashing, we now know how to use this easily accessible tool to stay healthy and coronavirus-free. 


Source: Inverse / the Washington Post/ Wikipedia