A portrait of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, who made the connection between hand washing and prevention of diseases

Even before Covid-19 spread across the world, handwashing was a part of daily hygiene. But did you know that there was a time when it was not part of daily routines? Even doctors did not consider handwashing important! In the 19th century, doctors would examine patients without washing their hands. And when patients started feeling worse, it did not occur to them that they were the ones causing the disease.

However, there was one smart doctor who made the connection between handwashing (or the lack of it) and diseases. This doctor was from Hungary and his name was Ignaz Philipp Semmelweiss (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865).

Fever after childbirth

He was working in the maternity clinics of Vienna General Hospital when he made his discovery. There were two clinics – one for medical students and the other for midwives. (Midwives helped women with childbirth. This was the traditional way of giving birth to children.) In those days, newly born children would get sick due to infections, which were called childbed fever. These infections were dangerous for newly born babies.

But Dr Semmelweis observed that children born in the traditional clinic had fewer infections. He observed that midwives were not in contact with any other patients. But doctors and medical students were handling other patients too – some of whom were very ill. 

Dr Semmelweis wondered whether doctors were the ones who unknowingly brought diseases closer to their patients in the maternity ward.

Keeping your hands clean

He started washing his hands with a solution of chlorinated lime after treating a patient and before delivering a child. He advised his medical students to follow his example. To his delight, he noticed that his patients started recovering faster than before. This happened in 1847.

Dr. Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis advised his doctor friends to do the same. But they refused to believe that handwashing could prevent disease and death. Dr Phillip had no scientific evidence that disease could be caused by germs which could ride on a doctor’s hand. 

Later, new discoveries by Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner and other microbiologists (scientists who study tiny microorganisms), proved Dr Ignaz Philip right. 

By that time, the pioneer in washing hands was no more. But he was the first one to point out the importance of handwashing in preventing diseases. 

Today, handwashing is the main line of defence against the new coronavirus (Covid-19). Let’s remember Dr Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis as we scrub our hands with soap for 20 seconds!

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