Hand-Washing: What We Can Learn from One Doctor’s Revolutionary Decision
The following is an adapted excerpt from Decisions: Practical Advice from 23 Men and Women Who Shaped the World by Robert L. Dilenschneider. Reprinted with permission from Kensington Books.
Count me among those who apparently didn’t get the “science gene.” In my case, the Bunsen burner in my high school lab did me in. I know many people who, faced with dissecting a rubbery dead frog, gave the scalpel back to the biology teacher and decided to major in English Lit.
But fortunately for all of us, there are many people who, genetically endowed or not, live and work in the land of science.
A pioneer in the brave new world of germ theory — Ignaz Semmelweis, bucked the mid-nineteenth century medical power structure. Though I’ll bet you’ve never heard of him, he is probably responsible for the fact that we wash our hands so often.
Semmelweis was born in 1818 and died in 1865. Educated in Hungary and Austria, he was practicing medicine at the Vienna General Hospital in 1847, the time of his great discovery/decision. Spontaneous generation was beginning to be supplanted by germ theory.
Semmelweis decided to pay attention to “childbed (puerperal) fever,” which of course struck only women after childbirth and was almost invariably and horribly fatal. (I’ll get to the hand-washing.) Mothers, in fact, had identified the crux of the “childbed fever” problem long before doctors (generally men) did.
Before the mid-nineteenth century, most babies were born at home with midwives (generally women) attending mother and child. Infection and risks of all kinds were constant threats, but doctors were normally called in only for emergencies. As “health care” institutions began to develop, birthing moved out of the home and, more and more, doctors supplanted midwives. And that’s when Semmelweis noticed, as did new and prospective mothers, that there was a connection between childbed fever (and mothers dying) and babies born with a doctor’s help versus a midwife’s.
I’ve given you a red herring here. What’s relevant is not the gender of the doctor or the midwife, but the fact that doctors almost always came to the maternity ward directly from … the morgue, where they performed autopsies and … did not wash their hands. Our modern minds reel at the implications of this unsanitary practice, but in the mid-nineteenth century when “germs” was a new concept, that’s the way it was. Midwives were in the maternity ward solely to attend to their patients, and did not have the “opportunity” to carry so many germs so easily.