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Explainer - A time when no-one washed their hands

Written by: Colin Cullis

You are probably washing your hands more than you ever have and would imagined humanity has always known about this. They did not.

1847 might seem like a long time ago, but humans have been around for more than 50,000 years so 173 years is relatively recent.

A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, noted that many women in maternity wards would contract a similar deadly fever when attended to by doctors that had also been doing autopsies.

When a doctor friend of his died following an accidental scalpel cut from a student in the morgue, he noted that his friend had the same symptoms as the women in the maternity ward. He wondered if something from the dead bodies was affecting the pregnant women and had killed his friend.

He determined that germs (not that they were known at the time) were causing an infection and that was resulting in the deaths.

He was the first to suggest proper handwashing to reduce the risk of causing infection.

You may think he should be a household name as a result, but the tragedy was that few at the time were willing to believe some invisible thing could kill a person and, even less, that washing your hands would get rid of it.

The lack of support and the continued deaths affected his mental health and at 47, after being committed to a mental institution, he died following an infection he most likely acquired after a beating.

Today's Google Doodle pays tribute to what he started, even if he was not able to see his insights become established science during his lifetime.

It does not end there though. We still have much to learn and all of us should become more aware of how best to reduce infections while not abusing the tools we have to fight harmful bacteria.

Read this piece on antibiotics if you would like to know more.


This article first appeared on CapeTalk : Explainer - A time when no-one washed their hands




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