Until the 1800s, surgeons did not wash their hands before performing surgery. In fact, they didn't even wash their hands between treating patients, which means they often transmitted diseases from one patient to another. A 19th-century doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that hand washing could dramatically reduce death rates. Although his theory was met with skepticism, today we know that hand washing is vital for preventing diseases.
Ignaz Semmelweis was a physician and the director of a maternity ward at Vienna General Hospital. In 1840, he noticed that a high percentage of the patients were dying from childbed fever, which occurs when a mother develops an infection during or shortly after childbirth. In fact, up to 1 in 4 women were dying after giving birth, both in Europe and in America. At the same time, an American doctor, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was advocating hand washing as a way to prevent childbed fever, but his ideas were met with disdain. At Vienna General Hospital, it was common at the time for the medical students to move from working with corpses to examining new mothers without washing their hands. When a colleague died from a wound he obtained while conducting a dissection, Dr. Semmelweis decided to investigate.
Dr. Semmelweis noticed that the patients in the maternity ward staffed by midwives rather than medical students had much lower incidences of childbed fever and death. He hypothesized that the students were transporting infections from the corpses to the women. Dr. Semmelweis instigated a new rule that required all medical students and doctors to wash their hands in a solution that included chlorine before examining the women in the maternity ward. Soon, the death rate from childbed fever dropped to one percent.
Skepticism and Doubt
Both Dr. Semmelweis's and Dr. Holmes's ideas were met with skepticism and sometimes even hostility. Doctors were reluctant to take the time to wash their hands after examining every single patient, especially in light of the fact that most places did not have indoor plumbing, and they certainly did not have hot water. In addition, doctors knew that many diseases were associated with contaminated water, including typhoid fever. Dr. Semmelweis soon resigned, moved to a new maternity ward and replicated his experiment with the same results, but hand washing was still viewed with disdain. Sadly, he eventually died in an insane asylum without knowing that his groundbreaking ideas and theories would soon be confirmed by Louis Pasteur and other doctors and scientists.
Hand Washing Today
Today, it's not just doctors and surgeons who wash their hands. Children are taught in schools to wash their hands after using the restroom, sneezing or touching something dirty. The U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention states that proper hand washing is the most effective way of stopping the spread of diseases. Yet one hand washing study reported by "The New England Journal of Medicine" in 1992 found that, in one intensive care unit, hand washing rates averaged around 40 percent. Infrequent hand washing is also a problem in childcare centers. Although attitudes about hand washing have improved greatly since Dr. Semmelweis's time, it seems that practices have not. Hopefully, continued education and supervision will solve the problem.