History of hand-washing

The act of washing hand these days, before and after doing anything significant, seems normal enough and not something that would be view as unusual to anyone. This common sense shared though was nearly unheard of some 150 years ago on this same place we share today. So much so that there were even reports that doctors in the 1800s would often go from performing an autopsy to assisting another patient in a child bearing process, without washing of their hands in between. And of course, this act and others due to a lack of sanitizing procedures in place, led to many lives being paid as a result in those days.

Though everything was on due course, to a drastic change in the year 1847.

Dr Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor working in then one of the largest hospital, Vienna General Hospital, between the years 1844 and 1848. Dr Ignaz, in his course of work, had then notice a stark difference in the fatality rates between the midwife-ran maternity department and the other department that is ran by the hospital doctors themselves.

There was a notably higher death rate in the doctor’s ward as compared to those ran by the midwifes. A staggering percentage of almost three-fold in fact! Dr Ignaz Semmelweis was pretty disturbed and went on a self propelled mission in finding out what could be the reason behind this mysterious occurence.

In 1847, Dr Jakob Kolletschk, a working colleague of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, succumbed to an infection that resulted from an autopsy gone wrong, where he was cut in the finger by a scapel.

His death triggered Dr Ignaz Semmelweis to go on an evaluation and self-theorizing that perhaps some living matter/organism had somehow slipped through the opening on his finger and unwittingly led him onto his eventual death. He was convinced that this same route of infection is the answer to his long standing question on why more lives were lost when doctors were attending to child birthing calls.

Following this incident, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis quickly implemented a SOP for all doctors in the same hospital that requires them to wash their hands with chlorinated lime after every performance of autopsy. This single act reportedly brought the cases of fatalities for the doctor’s department, all the way down to the same level of the midwife’s.

And THAT was the beginning of how hand washing really came about. This important finding led on to further discoveries down the road, of really how important personal hygiene is, especially in the context of patient-handling doctors, nurses and medical staffers. This act indirectly resulted in the eventual implementation of many lives saving regulations that till this day, are still being practiced in many medical establishments across the world.

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