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165 years of washing your hands: Ignaz Semmelweis and the hygiene revolution

Hand-washing is a common hygienic practice that became popularized in the mid-19th century.
user Sarah Laval

It’s easy to take for granted the leaps and bounds medical science has made in the last two centuries.

Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope in 1816. 1818 saw the first successful blood transfusion performed by James Blundell. In 1842 Crawford Long performed the first surgical operation using anesthesia.

And in 1850, 165 years ago this month, a Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis stood before his peers in Vienna and demanded they start washing their hands.

To those of us living in 2015, hand-washing seems like a no-brainer. It’s a behavior that’s been pounded into us since childhood, and one we’re reminded to practice at every turn.

At the very least it’s something we expect our doctors to do.

But according to Dr. Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian with the University of Michigan, much of the 19th century was a different story.

Markel says hand-washing was not a common practice. He says most doctors would've been insulted were the idea suggested to them.

“They considered themselves gentlemen, and to have some ‘morbid poison’ dripping from their hands was just completely rejected,” Markel said.

This, in an era where doctors would examine cadavers immediately before delivering a child.

Semmelweis’ proposal, however, was poorly timed. 

“Germ theory wasn’t really taking off yet … it was a few years before Pasteur came on the scene,” Markel said.

Now considered to be a hero of modern medicine, back then Semmelweis’ ideas and prickly personality were far from earning him any friends.

“He was derided. There were many who felt he was not dignified enough to even be called ‘Doctor.’ He had his share of enemies, and that is a great tragedy,” Markel said, “It is a sad tale of how personalities sometimes get in the way of fact.”

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