We all know now that washing our hands is vital for health and hygiene, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, long after humans knew things like how large the globe was, we still did not know about germ theory. Luckily, we can thank the scientist who discovered this vital aspect of health.
Ignaz Semmelweis is now known as the founding father of hygiene but was once a Hungarian doctor in the mid-19th century Vienna. During that time a big threat to new mothers was a disease called bedside fever. No one could understand why mothers who had just delivered babies were dying days later.
Ignaz realized that the infection rate was much higher if the baby was delivered by a doctor as opposed to a midwife.
He theorized that the doctors had “cadaveric matter” on their hands and were transmitting infections to their patients. The midwives never dealt with other types of patients so this was why their infection rates were so much lower. While we know now that that fever is caused by bacteria, germ theory was not yet known in the greater scientific community. Still, the basic premise was right. Doctors were responsible for bringing diseases to their patients through their unwashed hands.
For years, Semmelweis’ findings were resisted by other doctors and scientists who bristled at the idea that these deaths were preventable and caused by their own lack of hygiene. Semmelweis implemented the practice of hand-washing and saw measurable improvements across the board amongst his patients, yet others continued to find the idea laughable.
He ultimately never got to see the impact his ideas would have on the world as he died in a mental hospital at the age of 47, perhaps driven mad by the stress of trying to convert others to his theory.
In the years following his death, germ theory became scientific praxis. Soon all doctors would know of the importance of handwashing and mortality rates around the world for all types of illnesses would decrease. We are especially thankful for his work now because we all need to be vigilant about our own personal hygiene for the safety of our communities.
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