The Shockingly Recent History of People Actually Washing Their Hands

Everyone knows how important it is to wash their hands nowadays, but this “discovery” wasn’t so well-perceived in the 1840s. This was the time when childbirth had a very high death rate percentage in the Vienna General Hospital.

Washing hands with soap - bathroom sink
The Shockingly Recent History of People Actually Washing Their Hands

The Study of Washing Hands

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician, conducted a series of investigations that concluded doctors should wash their hands to save new mothers’ lives. Nowadays, he is known as the father of handwashing, but back in the day, very few people took his advice.

In the 1840s, the Vienna General Hospital had three maternity clinics. One was staffed by midwives, while physicians ran the other two. Semmelweis noticed that the deaths from childbed fever were much less frequent in the ward supervised by midwives.

Because the physicians were doing a lot more tasks than delivering babies (dissecting cadavers including) and were not washing their hands, they were transferring a lot of germs. At least a lot more than the midwives.

A Moment of Clarity

In 1847, one of Semmelweis’ colleagues cut his finger during an autopsy. He later died from an infection. This was when Semmelweis began requiring physicians to wash their hands with chlorinated lime after conducting autopsies. This lowered the mortality rate in the clinic by 3%.

Vintage photo of doctors washing their hands
The Shockingly Recent History of People Actually Washing Their Hands

The Rejection of Semmelweis Theories

While Semmelweis was partially right, his theories contained errors that met valid criticism. For example, he believed that the source of childhood fever came directly from the cadavers, but the truth is that the fever was a problem long before the autopsies became a practice in the hospital. Semmelweis also proposed other iterations of these theories without addressing any criticism. His communication style was often rambling and confusing, which didn’t play well for him.

Semmelweis was committed to a mental institution, where he died at the age of 47. One hypothesis about the cause of death is that he died from a wound on his hand that became infected.

Progress Since the Time of Semmelweis

There is no doubt that we’ve come a long way since Semmelweis’ time, but the practice of washing hands has had its ups and downs. It received spikes in times of crisis like the World Wars.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the CDC published the first national guidelines on hand hygiene. In 1995, they began recommending that healthcare providers clean their hands with a waterless antiseptic agent or antimicrobial soap when they leave a patient’s room. In 2002, it became a standard to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.