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The History of Handwashing

World Hand Hygiene Day in May and Global Handwashing Day in October highlight how far we have come in understanding the impact of cleanliness on preventing disease. In light of the global coronavirus pandemic, now would be a good time to look at where this healthy practice, which has become so much a part of our lives lately, stems from.

Our bodies are 70% water

That’s probably the reason why we have an affinity for these little molecules comprised of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen (H2O). Most of the world’s biggest cities are built next to a river, on a lake, or at the coast – Johannesburg is the one great exception, which is why water is such a valuable resource.

The reason for this is obvious – within 3 days, a human being will die without water. But more than that, perhaps we have always instinctively known, through thousands of years of existence, that water is naturally healing. It’s known as the universal solvent, because over time it washes everything clean.

Washing our bodies, and our hands in particular, is admonished in many religions, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and it is specifically mentioned in both the Qur’an and the Bible.

A Hungarian doctor and Florence Nightingale save the day

The modern history of handwashing can be traced back to 1847, when a Hungarian-German doctor called Ignaz Semmelweiss instituted the practice of handwashing at the Vienna General Hospital, where he worked in obstetrics. Semmelweiss noticed that both babies and mothers who were treated by doctors were more inclined to die than those who were treated by midwives. He observed that doctors would sometimes work on post-mortems and on people who were very ill, and then, without washing their hands, they would go and attend to mothers who were in labour.

Semmelweiss believed that, somehow, these doctors were transferring something from the dead bodies and the sick patients to the mothers, which led to a massive increase in puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever or post-partem infections. Babies were also dying.

Semmelweiss introduced the practice of handwashing with an anti-septic-type liquid to accompany it. He initially used chlorinated lime solutions. At the time, however, Semmelweiss was derided as a quack for promoting the practice of washing hands, and his fastidiousness did not gain much attention. Doctors were offended at the suggestion that they were responsible for spreading disease and killing people instead of healing them. He stuck to his guns, though his theory drove him almost insane. Sadly, he died in an asylum at the young age of 47 after being beaten up by the guards. Today he is honoured around the world for his pioneering work.

Famed nurse Florence Nightingale also noticed the rifeness of diseases during the Crimean War of 1853-1856 due to a lack of hand hygiene, and instituted the practice of changing the linen daily and bathing patients to prevent the spread of disease.

Louis Pasteur, generally credited with the development of germ theory and the link between germs and disease, credited Semmelweiss in his works. Joseph Lister also applied the theory and introduced the use of carbolic acid to disinfect hospitals and surgical equipment. He wasn’t taken too seriously either, until he successfully treated Queen Victoria.

Google does a doodle

To mark the anniversary of his appointment as Chief Resident of the maternity clinic at Vienna General Hospital – and also in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and the desperate need for washing hands – Google honoured Semmelweiss with a doodle on 20 March 2020, dedicated to his handwashing regimen.

Happy birthday to you

Incidentally, the Happy Birthday song, which people are advised to sing twice through while washing their hands, to ensure that they have been washed for at least 20 seconds, is credited with being composed by two sisters, Mildred J. Hill and Petty S. Hill, in 1893, in Kentucky.

So, we owe a lot of our health hygiene regimen to people who were alive well over 100 years ago, and left their indelible mark on history.

Handwashing is still a dirty word

According to a study by the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC), some 69% of men do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. Are we surprised then by the rampant spread of the coronavirus across the world?

Have a chat with your doctor the next time you visit, about the correct way to wash your hands, and what are the best washing and antiseptic materials to use to keep your hands clean.

Remember to wash your hands regularly! It could save your life and other’s lives.

For more information please contact:

Dr Z Motlekar
Specialist Physician
MB BCh Witwatersrand FCP (SA)
Royal Hospital & Heart Centre
Tel: +27 53 833 4004
Email: zahmot@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.