After Semmelweis implemented hand hygiene between the morgue and the delivery room, the rate of mortality for new mothers dropped to about 1%.
India – Washing your hands properly, according to the WHO, takes about as long as singing “Happy Birthday” twice and is a way to contain COVID-19. But the first doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis who taught mankind about handwashing, honored by Friday’s “Google Doodle,” was sent to an asylum!
Religious handwashing rituals have been around for thousands of years in Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and other cultures, but the notion of disease spreading by hand has only been part of the medical belief system for about 130 years. The first recorded discovery of the life-saving power of handwashing came 50 years earlier, in 1848, as a huge and unwelcome shock.
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is the father of handwashing. While working at Vienna General hospital, the Hungarian doctor was at the forefront of a more scientific approach to medicine. Faced with a significantly higher rate of maternal deaths from the dreaded “childbed fever” in the doctor-led maternity ward than in the midwife-run clinic, he racked his brain for clues as to why.
Scientists had not yet discovered germs, and doctors still believed in the 1840s miasma—bad smells in the air—emanating from rotting corpses, sewage, or vegetation caused disease. Victorians kept their windows firmly shut against such malevolent forces.
So it did not seem a problem that trainee doctors at Vienna General would hang out in the morgue conducting autopsies and then pop up to the maternity ward to deliver a baby without washing their hands.
One doctor got an accidental scalpel cut during an autopsy dissection and died, seemingly of the same “childbed fever” the mothers had been getting. Semmelweis hypothesized that cadaverous particles from the morgue were to blame, and that such particles on the hands of doctors were making their way into women’s bodies during childbirth.
To test his theory, Semmelweis ordered doctors to wash their hands and instruments in a chlorine solution, a substance he hoped would dispatch the deadly smell of cadaverous particles.
Before the experiment, the mortality rate for new mothers was as high as 18%, three times the rate in the midwives’ clinic. After Semmelweis implemented handwashing between the morgue and the delivery room, the rate of mortality for new mothers dropped to about 1%.
Despite his success, Ignaz Semmelweis’s idea faced great resistance, and he met a tragic end. He lost his job and is thought to have had a breakdown. He died at the untimely age of 47 in a psychiatric institution, a very despondent person.
Over the next 40 years, an understanding of germs developed, and attitudes to hygiene gradually shifted. In 1857, while Semmelweis’s mental health declined, Louis Pasteur, of pasteurization fame, raised awareness of pathogens and how to kill them with heat.
In 1876, the German scientist Robert Koch discovered the anthrax bacillus, kicking off the new research field of medical bacteriology. Scientists subsequently identified cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and typhoid bacilli.
Surgeons started handwashing in earnest.