Hand Washing Stops Infections—But Doctors Didn’t Realize it Until the Mid-19th Century

One of the best ways to prevent the spread of the flu and other viruses is to wash your hands. Today, this may seem like common sense to many people (even if they don’t all do it right). However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that some doctors in the United States and Europe began to wash their hands before examining patients – and even then, only in certain cases.

One of the first supporters of hand washing was Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who worked at the Vienna General Hospital between 1844 and 1848. The hospital was one of the largest in the world for teaching, and its wing Maternity Hospital was so large that it was divided into two departments: one for doctors and their students and one for midwives and their students.

However, there was a clear disparity between these services.

Between 1840 and 1846, the maternal mortality rate in the midwifery service was 36.2 per 1,000 births, while the mortality rate in the medical service was 98.4 per 1,000 births, according to one 2013 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Specifically, the medical service had a higher rate of “childhood fever”, now known as streptococcal infection. Semmelweis started to look for differences between services.

READ MORE: Why the second wave of the Spanish flu in 1918 was so deadly

One difference was that in the doctors’ division, a priest came regularly and sounded like a last sacrament to the dying, explains Dana Tulodziecki, professor of philosophy at Purdue University who wrote on Semmelweis in the newspaper Philosophy of science. Semmelweis wondered if women died because of “the psychological terror of hearing the bell – so even if you don’t actually die, you just hear the bell, you know it might be your time.” Semmelweis redirected the priest, but it made no difference.

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